Last year the EU slashed single-use plastics. Now it needs to do the same for all other resources

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Legislators should set a clear headline target to halve the EU’s material footprint by 2030, argues Meadhbh Bolger. [Marcel Oosterwijk / Flickr]

Last year the EU passed ambitious new laws to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics. That same thinking now needs to be applied to the economy as a whole, argues Meadhbh Bolger, saying Europe can get started by setting targets in its upcoming Circular Economy Action Plan.

Meadhbh Bolger is a resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, a green NGO.

Given the ecological collapse we are in, and that much of it is driven by our high resource consumption and growth-driven economy, it is vital that the EU Commission takes this seriously in its Circular Economy Action Plan in March.

The term “circular economy” has been a buzzword for some time now – in politics, in business, even now in broader society.

When people and politicians think of the term they often think of more recycling, ecodesign of products and better waste management. But how many think of the overall quantity of resources that go into the “circle” – the sheer amount of materials, land and water required to produce our everyday products and services, and the climate and other toxic emissions they come with, as well as impacts on communities along the way?

The stakes could not be higher. Previous circular EU economy efforts have failed to reduce resource consumption – instead, the EU is consuming an ever-larger share of limited global resources, and will continue to unless action is taken.

The EU – consuming beyond our fair share

The EU consumes as if we had three planets available to produce the resources we use and absorb the waste we produce. Impacts from our overconsumption are significant – resource extraction and processing accounts for more than 90% of global biodiversity loss and about half of climate change emissions. If embedded emissions in imported goods were accounted for, Europe would not have achieved any emissions reductions since 1990.

Increasingly, economic activities at different levels are marketed as being “circular”, but they are often fragmented and in practice it is difficult to assess whether they substitute business-as-usual consumption and deliver any tangible resource savings at a systemic level. The underlying objective of circular activities must be a reduction in absolute resource consumption.

Setting a headline target to halve EU material footprint by 2030

First, we need a clear headline target to halve the EU’s material footprint by 2030. The material footprint measures the total weight of raw materials – biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores – needed to produce the goods and services consumed in the EU as a whole, including imports. This ensures that environmental and social pressures and related impacts from resource extraction outside of the EU are taken into consideration.

Think of a smartphone – mining for rare earth and other metals requires much more material extraction than the tiny quantities that end up  in your phone – for example, an entire tonne of material needs to be extracted to get just one gram of gold. This needs to be accounted for.

The target will drive the development of more ambitious policy tools and initiatives towards the common goal of resource reduction. For example, within the likely upcoming EU Textiles Strategy, how can we reduce the EU clothing footprint, given that clothes are made from biomass and/or fossil fuels? How can we develop stronger new legislation to extend product lifetimes and mandate more reuse, thus reducing pressure on virgin resources?

Member States are already stepping up action on this – one of the headline aims of the Dutch government’s circular economy strategy is to half the use of fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores in the Netherlands by 2030.

LEAK: EU's new circular economy plan aims to halve waste by 2030

The European Commission will aim to “absolutely decouple” economic growth from natural resource use in a draft circular economy action plan due to be unveiled in March.

Monitoring of land, water and carbon footprints

Reducing the EU’s resource consumption goes beyond materials – the bloc’s total consumption (footprint) of land, water and its embodied carbon emissions must also be accounted for to give a holistic picture. These should be monitored as part of the EU circular economy monitoring framework with the view to also setting reduction targets in future.

For example, monitoring the carbon footprint of products and materials consumed in the EU would bridge further actions between climate and circular economy, such as setting product standards with regard to their carbon footprint.

The Circular Economy Action Plan is the European Commission’s biggest chance to push for these necessary targets. Climate and ecological breakdown, driven by the Global North’s unsustainable overconsumption of resources, are on our doorstep and have been wreaking devastation in the Global South for some time. We cannot afford another five years of tinkering around the edges while the planet teeters on the verge of collapse.

Circular economy erected as ‘number one priority’ of European Green Deal

The circular economy, including new waste and recycling laws, will represent “half” of the EU’s effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and will be erected as “the number one priority” of the upcoming European Green Deal, officials have said.

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