If Europe wants to transition towards a circular economy model, the practices have to be mainstreamed and all actors should be involved in the process, experts warned during an event hosted by EURACTIV.
“If we want the transition to happen and to be successful, this is crucial. Either we do it together or it is not going to fly,” said Fulvia Raffaelli, who is in charge of Clean Technologies and Products at the European Commission.
“We need governance, we need industry and we need citizens and consumers to play their role if we want to achieve on this,” Annika Hedberg, Head of Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme and Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) added.
The circular economy will not only be key in achieving the climate objectives but also economic independence and boosting research and innovation, Raffaelli argued.
But she insisted that sustainability needs to be mainstreamed. “Either circular practices become the normal practice, or we will never achieve the transition we aim for,” the EU official added.
If the ambition is to change from a linear to a circular economy, “it won’t be achieved by having a linear economy where there is a couple of recycling cycles,” Cillian Lohan, CEO of the Green Economy Foundation and member of the European Economic and Social Committee, argued.
“The experience that we have is that transitioning towards circularity is actually a good business model,” Lohan added.
For businesses that decide move towards that model, finance is not a barrier, he added. And industry agrees. “Financing is not that difficult,” Ulrich Reifenhäuser, Managing Director of Reifenhäuser GmbH & Co. KG Maschinenfabrik said.
“What we have is to come up with new products “and there is a need and a demand for those products,” he added.
The Commission encourages industry indeed to identify potential market opportunities so that the EU executive can support them, Fluvia Raffaelli said.
“At the moment we calculate that 12% of our economy can be labelled as a circular economy,” she explained, “there is a lot of potentials and this is what we need to push.”
Need for better design
The barriers to the circular economy are often the result of a bad design of the product which makes it harder to be reused or recycled.
“Every product on the European market should be sustainable by design. We should be aiming away waste and to design away emissions. That should be the ultimate goal,” said Hedberg.
Product longevity, reusability, sharing… can help to reduce the materials needed for production or even lead to dematerialisation, Hedberg argued. “These are the kind of solutions that we should be looking at,” she added.
“The design would require definitely bigger attention than in the previous action plan,” Raffaelli said, referring to the Commission Action Plan on Circular Economy.
“If we really see eco-design as the instrument for design, we do need more investment and capacities on this,” Hedberg added.
However, designing with a life cycle approach is only possible if access to good information is provided. Knowing the materials used in production, the different components and whether those have been indeed reused already is key.
“This tracing, this is blockchain and it is digitalization,” Ulrich Reifenhäuser said.
“Digitalisation can help to address the challenges of the information transfer, which is one of the biggest barriers to achieving a circular economy,” Hedberg added.
“Providing information on the characteristic of the product is essential, it is the basis,” said the Commission’s Raffaelli. “We need to be more transparent and we need to force companies to provide the environmental impact of their own product.”
The role of consumers
The ‘Green wave’ we have seen in the past few years shows a switch in society. People are increasingly conscious of their own environmental impact and are therefore more demanding on the industry to meet their needs and wishes.
“There is a demand coming from consumers. People do want more sustainable products,” Hedberg argued.
But although consumers’ behaviours can send a signal to the markets “that’s only on certain sectors of society,” Cillian Lohan warned.
“Consumers base their choice on accessibility and affordability as the first two things,” he stated.
We need education so that consumers are able to distinguish what is more sustainable but we also need the right price, Fulvia Raffaelli said. “We should be going into a direction where the sustainable choices are the norm and not the exception,” she stressed.
“In the end, the kind of market we want in Europe is a market where basically every product that is on a shelve is sustainable so that consumers do not have to think,” Hedberg added.
The transition towards a sustainable economy will be easy neither for the industry nor for consumers. “In every transition, there will always be a winner and losers,” she added. However, this could be an enormous opportunity for the European industry “to be out there, to provide solutions that will be needed in tomorrow’s world, not just in the EU but outside”.
The Green Deal European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen will unveil on Wednesday (11 December) represents a new opportunity for pushing EU’s economic model in this direction, and the circular economy is expected to be an important part of it.
“The time is now,” Fulvia Raffaelli added.