Potočnik’s main legacy as European environment commissioner was to put resource efficiency and the circular economy on the EU agenda. But the EU is a big ship and turning it around is slow: whoever is next at the helm would be wise to anchor the circular economy in local action and proximity, writes Jori Ringman-Beck.
Jori Ringman-Beck is Director for Recycling, Products and Environment at the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), an association representing the interests of the EU pulp and paper sector.
The European Union has long battled with the problem of poor implementation of its ambitious environmental policies. Moreover, in a global economy, setting high environmental standards for EU-based producers at worst can damage the competitiveness of the European economy. The result is often that production is simply outsourced to other world regions and consumption carries on as before. Recently, however, more and more people have become aware of the environmental baggage in the rucksack of our consumption.
Acknowledging the environmental impacts of imports is good, but not enough. It still reflects a linear thinking and not the circular economy promoted by Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment. After consumption comes waste and, like imports, waste also causes environmental impact that are not clearly visible to consumers.
Potočnik told a group of waste experts in London in November that the global pressure on natural resources, rising costs, Europe’s dependency on imports and the environmental impact call for “nothing short of a revolution in our mind-sets and behaviour towards a resource efficient circular economy”.
His economy is based on virtuous cycles, which promote re-use, repair, and recyclability; and where one industry's waste becomes another's raw material. Potočnik pledged to place proposals for the EU waste review within a wider package on resource efficiency and the circular economy.
On other occasions the Environment Commissioner has lamented the difficulty we face, as a society, in escaping the habits of linear thinking and moving to a circular model. In this regard, however, even his own hierarchy is not above reproach: DG Environment is still, for instance, forcing through end-of-waste legislation of which the effect will be to stimulate waste exports with little or no benefit. Had it adopted the circular economy and resource efficiency mindset, the Commission might have abandoned this proposal a long time ago.
According to the European Commission, 71 % of consumers would avoid buying goods that have travelled long distances. If only people knew, how far their waste travelled too: they might well be concerned about how far their goods travel after consumption. And it is not only the distances travelled that have an impact: the absence of material for recycling locally when waste is exported will only increase resource pressure in Europe, and result in externalities significantly higher than any gain from exporting waste.
With short, local cycles, the same material can be back in production as soon as possible: in European newspaper production, for instance, the recycling loop can be as short as a week; corrugated boxes go ‘cradle to cradle’ in 14 days. The speed of the cycle directly dictates the amount of resources needed in an economy. (As an economist, Mr Potočnik would know this from the velocity of money theory.)
The solution to success in circular economy is the old maxim “think globally, act locally”. If rooted in local rather than global cycles, making the benefits to local sustainability more transparent and tangible, the legacy of Commissioner Potočnik will not only make sense, it will also be more likely to deliver. Moreover, putting people, proximity and local economies at the heart of environmental policies might even - finally - solve the problem of implementation. That alone would be nothing short of a revolution.