What to Expect from Circular Economy This Year
February 20th and 21st, 2018, the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee hosted the third Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference in Brussels. This stakeholder conference brought together businesses, local authorities, and citizens to discuss recent initiatives and new areas of action in the transition to a more circular, resource-efficient, and low-carbon economy. In this blog, I will dive into the opening speech of Frans Timmermans to find out what we can expect from circular economy this year and the next few years.
Frans Timmermans’ opening speech at the Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference
You can find the full version of Frans Timmermans’ opening speech here. I will summarize the text below and comment on it.
First, Timmermans comments on the popularity of the conference and states that he recognizes many of the participants. He jokes that “whilst we must talk about recycling, I have to be careful not to recycle too much of my old speeches!”
When the conference was first held in 2015, circular economy was not a popular topic at all and “to many, it was still the great unknown.” He has noticed a shift the past three years as “never before, has there been such a strong global consensus on the need to change our economic model. The Sustainable Development Goals we agreed at the United Nations are a comprehensive roadmap for our future,” which is what this world facing unprecedented resource and economic challenges needs.
A shift in the past three years
I agree that there has been a shift in attitude in the past three years. When I first blogged about circular economy in February 2015, I hardly knew anything about the topic and found it hard to grasp. I stuck to the basics to learn about it. Many, many people shared that blog, so I noticed a beginning interest in the topic and I noticed that other entrepreneurs had the same questions I had: what is circular economy, how can we benefit from it as humans, and how can we participate as entrepreneurs?
After about a month, just to understand it better, I read a book about blue economy and compared it to the idea of circular economy: The Difference between Circular Economy and Blue Economy. Again, many followers and readers were interested. A year ago, I shared some inspiring examples as I noticed that circular economy was becoming an increasingly more popular and household topic and we can all use some inspiration, right?
Good actions and good results
Timmermans continues: this fourth industrial revolution is occurring at breakneck speed. Everybody is on board with the revolution that the participants are leading. So, what are the participants doing there today? They aim to turn good will and good intentions into good actions and good results.
In December 2015, the Commission presented a Circular Economy Package that proposed an ambitious but realistic set of measures along the whole product lifecycle. Just over two years later, the participants have delivered almost all the initiatives planned and in the coming year, they will put them to the European Parliament and the Council.
An example he mentions is the good progress made on the waste legislation that will make Europe’s waste management system the most advanced regional system in the world. Other important work streams include synergizing our chemicals and waste policies, financing and research, awareness raising, and better tracking and measurement of the progress made in the circular economy.
Timmermans focuses on plastics in his speech, which he claims are one of the most pressing environmental and economic challenges of our times. He states: “Plastic waste is choking our oceans, killing wildlife and threatening our own health. Microplastics are found in the air as well as in our drinking water and in our food.”
In addition, the way we produce, use, and dispose of plastics is a wasted economic opportunity: every year, European consumers generate 25 million tons of plastic waste, with very low recycling rates. This means that around 95% of the economic value of plastic packaging is lost to the economy every year.
The first ever EU Plastics Strategy
Last month, the Commission presented the first ever EU Plastics Strategy to address these challenges. It sets out a new vision for a smart, innovative, and sustainable plastics industry, with reuse and recycling activities integrated into production chains. Both major economic players and the public embrace this.
By 2030, all plastics packaging will have to be reusable or recyclable in an economically viable manner. Secondly, the markets for recycled plastics will have to grow and more products will have to be made of recycled material. This is within our grasp. Thirdly, single-use plastics constitute 50% of litter found on EU beaches and the need to limit single-use plastics is becoming clearer and clearer by the day. They are aiming to present a legislative proposal on single-use plastics in May. Prevention and substitution are the two keywords. Sustainable alternatives are out there and must be scaled up.
Timmermans is increasingly more confident that business will work with the participants and amongst themselves. If we can improve the dialogue across the value chain, support the uptake of recycled content, develop and promote existing alternative products, and keep innovating, Timmermans is sure we will all find ways to re-use and recycle more plastic and avoid micro-plastic leakage.
Timmermans also addresses the pessimism that exists but he believes we can create enthusiasm about circular economy. He also believes the circular economy is about more than the economy: it is about creating a positive attitude to the future and about creating a sense that our future can be more prosperous and better.
Services versus products
I hope the confidence is well-founded and that there are indeed many conversations between businesses big and small, NGOs, local, national and international authorities, and citizens. As an online service provider (I am a translator), I still have no idea how I can work better. Maybe I already am doing it in the leanest and cleanest way possible? After all, I produce no products and the products that I use, I use in a very economical and sustainable manner. All in all, I cannot wait to be amazed by more and more startups that follow (or design) the innovative principles of circular economy!
Books about circular economy
Books are a great way to gather in-depth information about a circular economy. Below, I list a few good ones that paved the way:
“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” urge environmentalists; in other words, do more with less in order to minimize damage. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart argue, however, this approach perpetuates a one-way “cradle-to-grave” manufacturing model that casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste. Why not challenge the notion that human industry must inevitably damage the natural world? Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new. Elaborating their principles, the authors make an exciting and viable case for change.
Follow-up to Cradle to Cradle. Drawing on the green living lessons gained from ten years of putting the Cradle to Cradle concept into practice, William McDonough and Michael Braungart envision the next step in the solution to our ecological crisis. We do not just use or reuse and recycle resources with greater effectiveness; we actually improve the natural world as we live, create, and build. For McDonough and Braungart, the questions of resource scarcity and sustainability are questions of design.
Waste to Wealth proves that ‘green’ and ‘growth’ need not be binary alternatives. The book examines five new business models that provide circular growth from deploying sustainable resources to the sharing economy before setting out what business leaders need to do to implement the models successfully.
Where will prosperity come from in a global economy facing rising consumer demands, environmental challenges, volatile resource prices, and the end of easy credit? Ken Webster argues that our linear ‘take, make, and dispose’ economy is a 19th-century heritage adrift in the 21st-century reality. The time is right to move towards a circular economy – a regenerative model based around feedback-rich flows allied to new business models. The economic advantage lies in designing out waste, enabling access over ownership, using materials in cascading systems, and radical resource productivity with the prospect of rebuilding capital and resilience.