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Environmental innovation that serves society
Circular economy: a beautiful name for a distant objective
| News| 27/03/2019

Ignasi Puig Ventosa (@I_PuigVentosa) | ENT environment & management

The concept of circular economy has several virtues: it is easy to communicate, and it draws a certain parallelism with natural cycles. Perhaps the weakest point of the concept, or at least in relation to its translation into concrete policies, is its total disconnection from the energy dimension. All cycles -be they natural or ones that we try to reproduce in the economy- only work thanks to the contribution of energy, and energy has a material base. Coal, natural gas, oil or uranium, all are single-use products: they cannot be recycled.

22.5% of all direct material consumption in the EU in 2017 corresponded to fossil energy materials/carriers,[1] so the advance towards a circular economy will only be possible if we move towards a 100% renewable energy supply, although this supply will continue to have important material requirements.

In the EU (2017), 74.4% of the direct material consumption of fossil energy materials/carriers is imported. The transition to renewables is therefore not only environmentally fundamental, but also economically strategic. Policies to mitigate climate change are therefore also policies in favour of a more circular and resilient economy.

Although the objectives of the recently revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD)[2] are ambitious, the truth is that even achieving them, we would still be far from circularity. Let us consider the main objective of the WFD: 65% recycling of municipal waste in 2035. This means that 35% of the materials will still escape from the cycle. Only with enormous generosity could a system with these losses be considered circular…

In the EU, in 2017, 46.4% of municipal waste was recycled.[3] The margin of advance is enormous. Traditional formulas can continue to make progress (separate collection of biowaste, door to door collection, pay-as-you-throw, etc.), but not sufficiently. Especially, if we consider that municipal waste represents little more than 10% of the total waste,[4] and for other types of waste there are not even recycling targets.

Therefore, a shift in the paradigm is necessary. We need not only think about waste, but about resources.

In the EU, imports of metal ores represent 74,2% of the direct material consumption of these materials.[5] Although a relevant part of “domestic production” of metals comes from recycling, there has not been a policy to ensure that separately collected materials re-enter the economic cycles locally, rather they have been often exported. Similarly with other materials, such as plastic. Do we really have a policy on resources?

In relation to production models, it is unacceptable that today products that do not admit any circularity can be put on the market, and without any cost for the producers. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is rare. For most products, it simply does not exist (e.g. textiles, furniture or construction materials). When in place, in general, it is partial, since public administrations continue to assume part of the cost (e.g. for packaging waste). In addition, the incentives that producers receive to change production forms are very limited, if any. EPR should be generalized[6] (all products) and should be complete (all costs). This would undoubtedly mean putting the emphasis not only on waste, where measures on circular economy have excessively focused so far, but on the inputs to the system, putting eco-design in a pre-eminent place.

In short, it is about aligning the environmental discourse with the economic one. Doing things which are bad for the environment cannot come out cheaper. In this sense, in addition to advances in EPR, environmental taxation should also make progress. Environmental taxation pursues that each one assumes their costs (i.e., environmental costs), in the same way that assumes their benefits. Establishing taxes on landfill and incineration would be consistent with the waste hierarchy. Still several EU countries do not have such taxes in place or have it at a too low level.[7] Also products with a high impact should be subject to taxes.

Finally, the emphasis on circularity should not make us forget about the importance of the “size of the circle”, which continues to grow. [8] Reaching higher recycling levels does not necessarily reduce environmental pressures, if the system continues to require more and more raw materials. A resource policy is needed that does not pursue the capture of raw materials per se, but rather fits in a broader economic vision that allows achieving social objectives, but within a framework of sustainability and sufficiency.

 


[8] UN Environment. Global Resources Outlook. 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want. http://www.resourcepanel.org/reports/global-resources-outlook

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