The circular economy has become one of the latest buzzwords in Brussels. The challenge now is to make sure it becomes an operational pillar of the EU’s policymaking, writes Stephane Arditi.
Stephane Arditi is policy manager for products and waste at the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of more than 140 environmental NGOs from across Europe.
The past century has been marked by the rise of the consumer society. New gadgets and products flood our shops only to be discarded, and replaced, when they become faulty or go out of fashion. The result has been the creation of mountains of waste which, today, are predominantly buried or burnt.
The notion of a circular economy started gaining ground when this linear way of producing, consuming and discarding things on a mass scale was recognised as diametrically opposed to the hard fact that we live on a planet with finite resources. And if the resources in the ground are limited, demand for them will increase as the world’s population grows, causing both price and political instability.
Building a circular economy, where materials and products are constantly re-used, repaired, re-assembled and recycled, therefore makes sense. It is an opportunity to galvanise our economy and reduce the possibility of dangerous climate change.
So, concretely, how can Europe become more resource efficient? A key part of the answer lies in the design of our products.
How long a product will last, and whether it is repairable or recyclable, are considerations that can be better factored in when a product is designed.
As much as 80% of a product’s environmental impact is in fact determined at the design stage. What’s more, the resource extraction and manufacturing stages can suck up as much energy, and emit as much CO?, as during the entire use stage. To give a scale of grandeur, laptops have a raw material consumption of 270 kg for every kilogramme of the final product’s weight.
What can the EU do about it? Instead of issuing another roadmap or communication, the Commission should make use of one of the most powerful policy tools at its disposal. Enter the Ecodesign Directive.
So far, Ecodesign efforts have largely concentrated on reducing energy consumption during the use stage of electrical and electronic products. And the results are impressive. It is estimated that, together with the Energy Labelling Directive, it will deliver 45% of the EU’s 2020 energy efficiency target, generate €54 billion in extra revenue by 2020 and help create 800,000 jobs.
The Ecodesign Directive could now do for resource use what it has done for energy.
A new report by the European Environmental Bureau recommends three ways for the directive to deliver more resource-efficient products.
First, it should set design requirements that make products more easily repairable and longer-lasting. This would be supported by consumers, as a recent Eurobarometer survey found out.
Secondly, Ecodesign should ensure that the materials and components of a product can be more easily re-used, refurbished and recycled. Finally, it should ensure that products are free of hazardous or problematic substances, which can hamper re-use or recycling efforts.
The report also finds that getting producers to provide information about their products’ components and critical materials, including disassembly or repair instructions, would trigger a move towards a circular economy. The information could be provided with the product when it is purchased, or be easily accessible in a standardised format. This way, downstream users, like repair services, re-use centres or recycling companies, would have a better chance of keeping that product’s materials on the market and in circulation.
There are real benefits on offer if Ecodesign addresses resource use. For example, carrying out a range of simple, already available design options to extend the lifetime of laptops, printers and washing machines in the EU could lead to savings in greenhouse gas emissions of over 1 million tonnes per year, which is the equivalent of taking 477,000 cars off the road for one year.
Some may ask why the EU should be setting product design and information requirements. The simple answer is that producers within the single market want one set of rules for their products, not 28 different ones. Ensuring products deliver high performance and are sustainably designed is also one of the best ways of keeping EU industry ahead of the rest.
The Commission is now working on putting together a second Circular Economy proposal after it withdrew the first version. The rationale was that the previous package was too waste-oriented and that it failed to address product policy. We argue that the Commission should grab this opportunity with both hands.
Ecodesign requirements on resource use, coupled with the waste targets from the first version of the package, can help drive a circular economy in Europe. It is now up to Commissioner Vella, and Vice-Presidents Timmermans and Katainen, to make this happen.
The European Environmental Bureau’s report Delivering Resource Efficient Products can be downloaded here.