The European Commission must wholeheartedly commit to building a Circular Economy if it is to deliver the benefits for the environment, businesses and the economy that EU citizens expect, writes Simon Wilson.
Simon Wilson is the senior Brussels representative for the Green Alliance and coordinator for the Alliance for Circular Economy Solutions.
The European Commission frequently complains – often with good reason – that it cannot push further with policies because of opposition from reluctant member states. But the recent Environment Council conclusions on the Circular Economy Action Plan give the green light for new action to make products more circular. Indeed, the Council complains that the Commission has so far been too slow to act.
When the Commission presented its revised proposals on the Circular Economy last December, there were complaints about its reduced ambition compared to the 2014 proposals, particularly regarding the targets on waste. The executive countered by suggesting that the new proposals were realistic, and also made the point that the new Action Plan was truly circular, considering how to improve resource efficiency at all stages of the economic cycle, rather than simply tackling waste.
In contrast to the linear take-make-use-dispose model, the circular economy favours keeping resources in use for as long as possible, then restoring them into new cycles of use. That includes encouraging reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and greater use of secondary materials, in order to deliver environmental and economic gains.
A large part of this transition can be achieved by eliminating waste right from the design phase, rather than waiting until a product has already been used. ‘Designing out’ resource inefficiencies means that products can be used and re-used for longer, repaired more easily, and ultimately recycled to provide new industrial inputs.
One of the primary tools for product policy is ecodesign, which, along with energy labelling, has delivered massive energy efficiency savings for Europe. But much more can be done, and now is the time to look at product design more broadly in terms of resource efficiency. There is clear member state support on this, with the Council Conclusions calling for circularity criteria like durability, reusability, reparability, upgradability, recyclability, and recycled content to be included in future measures. The scope of ecodesign measures should also be extended to cover non-energy-using products in future, such as furniture and textiles. Other product measures can similarly encourage a shift towards circularity, like extending the legal guarantee period, addressing programmed obsolescence, and making spare parts more easily available, all highlighted by the Environment Council.
Product policies don’t exist in a vacuum, and we need to align them with economic and societal changes such as the move towards providing products-as-a-service. Mobile devices present a significant opportunity for better resource efficiency if we can harness design changes to such shifts in business models. As the smart phone market matures, Green Alliance’s research with O2 shows that there is a growing market of consumers who are keeping their phones for longer. Transitions towards new circular business models for smart devices can create deeper, longer-term customer relations through leasing and service models that allow innovative businesses to profit where those relying on short product replacement cycles will struggle. But in order for these new models to flourish, devices need to be more durable, and to be supported by software for longer. Ecodesign can play a role, for example by reducing the incidence of cracked screens and making devices easier to repair and upgrade.
Smarter design can also play a role in improving the resource efficiency of plastic and plastic products. Awareness is growing about the devastation caused by plastics which end up as marine litter. Next year will see a European Commission strategy on plastics in the circular economy, and the Environment Council has already suggested some measures that can be taken. Some plastic products just need to be eliminated, and a proposed ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics would be a good start. Ecodesign can also address plastic pollution by encouraging the use of recycled plastic and more easily-recyclable virgin plastics in products, thus promoting a reuse cycle that will keep plastic out of the oceans.
There are undoubtedly challenges in extending the use of ecodesign, not least the average length of time taken to address each product group. The Council’s rebuke to the Commission for delays in the timetable of the ecodesign process may not be entirely fair, but rather than provoking a defensive response, it should be used to prioritise and accelerate measures in this policy area in future. In an era where clear Commission successes are thin on the ground, it’s surely worth investing in a highly effective policy tool that can deliver benefits to consumers, reward innovative manufacturers, and put Europe on the profitable path towards greater resource efficiency.