Switching to a circular economy could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39% and ease pressure on virgin materials by 28%, according to the Circularity Gap Report, published on Tuesday (26 January).
If those principles were applied, 22.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions could be saved and help avoid climate breakdown, according to the study by Circle Economy.
But the report also contained bad news. Only 8.6% of the world’s economy can be considered circular, down from 9.1% two years earlier.
“The circularity gap is widening, and with it, the climate and biodiversity impacts of our extractive economies,” said Gino van Begin, secretary general of ICLEI, a global network of over 1,750 governments committed to sustainable development.
“To confront environmental challenges and deliver socio-economic benefi ts, we must rethink how we consume and dispose of materials,” he said, adding metrics are essential to track progress.
By reusing and recycling products, the world can reduce the need for virgin materials, like minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass. All of these have environmental impacts, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to deforestation.
According to the report, countries, like the US, Japan and Europe are responsible for a minority of the global population, but consume 31% of resources and generate 43% of emissions.
Reducing waste in Europe
At EU level, policymakers have passed a raft of regulations to cut on raw materials consumption, ban single-use plastics and reduce the overall amount of waste produced in Europe.
However, those have so far failed to turn the tide. In March last year, the European Commission launched a circular economy action plan to help cut waste levels and boost reuse of resources. It emphasised making products reusable and repairable in order to increase their lifespans.
On Wednesday (27 January), lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee voted on their response to the plan. The own initiative report calls on the Commission to create legally binding targets to reduce waste and set up a strong legislative framework for a low-carbon and zero pollution circular economy.
“Waste prevention was on everyone’s lips but little was made to translate it into legal provisions. With this, we hope to see the EU legislation effectively change in the coming months,” said Pierre Condamine from Zero Waste Europe, an environmental NGO.
A circular economy is key to reaching the targets of the European Green Deal, said Jan Huitema, a Dutch liberal MEP who authored the report. In his view, the main barrier to a circular economy is a lack of a market for secondary materials.
“There are quite a lot of subsidies that are contradictory to a circular economy. For example, subsidies for incineration in energy plants, creating an unfair level playing field to those who would like to use those to recycle them in their products,” said Huitema.
Lawmakers now want to create a level playing field between primary and secondary raw materials, partly through CO2 pricing.
“If you create a market for secondary raw materials, if you create a demand, then of course companies are more likely to invest in new technology and new ideas in recycling,” said Huitema.
On Tuesday (26 January), the committee passed amendments calling on the Commission to introduce “binding EU targets for 2030 to significantly reduce the EU material and consumption footprints”.
Other amendments included stopping planned obsolescence, where products are designed to have short lifespans, through legislation rather than voluntary action, and regulating the environmental impact of big tech.
“MEPs have done the sensible thing and backed stronger measures to reduce our runaway resource consumption – including demanding a key target to reduce EU material footprint,” said Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe.
The report also warns against incineration and its lock-in effect, but Zero Waste Europe says it still leaves space for incineration under certain conditions.
Incineration is used to produce energy from waste, but can lead to the loss of valuable materials, campaigners say.
“Even advanced incinerators cannot perform well enough to justify the burning of waste as opposed to reduction, redesign, reuse and recycling,” said Janek Vahk, Climate, Energy and Air Pollution Coordinator at Zero Waste Europe.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]