The Circular Economy – 1

Circular economy

Part 2, 3

What is the ‘Circular Economy’ (CE)? WRAP offers a good definition:

‘A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.’

The key elements of the CE is reducing consumption, reduce waste through recycling and reuse and increase awareness of shortcomings of the current linear economy.

The current linear model is irrational and unsustainable and will ultimately lead to a dearth in available resources. The circular economy by contrast mimicks natural systems by introducing a closed loop system that avoids generating unnecessary waste and utilises all available resources.

Back in 2009, The Story of Stuff launched a video that blew the lid off the current system. You can watch it here.

However it seems that the industry isn’t keen in finding immediate solutions. It disagrees with the imposition of deposit schemes as an article from the BPF Plastics and Flexible Packaging Group (a subsidiary of the British Plastics Federation) notes. It points out the decision of AG Barr to discontinue its deposit scheme and claims that deposit schemes could have a negative impact on existing recycling systems. It concludes that:

1. Deposit systems are costly to introduce where existing effective collection infrastructure like that in the UK already exists.
2. Deposit systems will not materially increase recycling of beverage containers in the UK.
3. The only deposit system operated in the UK was abandoned in 2015 due to the fact that the recycling level for that scheme despite a 30p deposit was below that being achieved by UK kerbside systems.
4. Introducing a deposit scheme in the UK would seriously undermine the viability of existing kerbside schemes for the remaining packaging materials.
5. Deposit schemes will not reduce overall littering and can have unintended consequences.
6. The amount of litter associated with beverage containers and especially plastic bottles is very small and policy on littering needs to address all littering not just a small part of it.

Much of the argument is pinned on the apparent failure of deposit schemes elsewhere (including the Barr scheme). It works on the assumption that they failed to take off because of the increase in use of disposable single use bottles. There is also the concern that poor people will be worse off having to pay extra for a deposit, then having to ‘go out of their way to take their recycling to deposit points instead of conveniently recycling from their kerbside.’

But a video from The Story of Stuff (see transcript) sums up the issue:

For its part, the plastics industry has publicly promoted recycling as the optimal solution, but has resisted taking financial responsibility for the associated costs. Privately, these companies have increasingly advocated for incineration to combat the leakage of plastics into the ocean,particularly in Asia. It is not hard to see why.

Lax environmental standards and the availability of cheap labor have put the developing world, particularly the nations of South East Asia, on the receiving end of global plastic waste exports, with China importing nearly 80% of the world’s plastic waste. As with climate change and many other environmental threats, the plastic consumption of rich nations is having an adverse and asymmetrical affect on poorer nations. But ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is no more a solution today than it has ever been.’

Working with Groups around the world a Global initiative ‘Break Free From Plastic’ has been established. With increasing attention focusing on zero waste and a circular economy, the EU has proposed a framework towards this. This is laid out in the EU publication, Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe.

The paper states:

‘Existing infrastructure, business models and technology, together with established behaviour keep economies ‘locked-in’ to the linear model. Companies may lack the information, confidence and capacity to move to circular economy solutions. The financial system often fails to provide for investment in efficiency improvements or innovative business models, which are perceived as more risky and complex, deterring many traditional investors. Conventional consumer habits can also hinder new products and services development. Such barriers tend to persist in a context where prices do not reflect the real costs of resource use to society, and where policy fails to provide strong and consistent signals for the transition to a circular economy.’

The aim within the EU is to eliminate waste, ultimately creating a zero waste scenario. The report states that this can be done using ‘Market mechanisms’ in order to bring such a scenario to fruition.

The paper makes a reference to investments in order to facilitate progress towards a circular economy. These include pension funds, which will be discussed below.

The key objectives of attaining a circular economy are:

Landfilling of all recyclable waste shall be prevented by 2025. Member States should endeavour to virtually eliminate landfill by 2030. Energy recovery, including waste-to-energy recovery and use of bio-fuels, will have a role to play with respect to non-reusable and non-recyclable waste. This will require more efficient use of the unevenly spread energy recovery capacity currently available in the EU, together with measures to avoid overcapacity.

Successful implementation can create more than 180 000 direct jobs in the EU by 2030, in addition to the estimated 400 000 jobs that will be created by the implementation of the waste legislation in force. It will lead to satisfying between 10 and 40% of the raw material demand in the EU, while contributing to achieving the 2030 EU target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% — 62 Mt of CO2eq per year would be avoided in 2030.’

The EU already has a zero waste framework, which is laid out in the EU Waste Framework Directive (2008/98). But a specific focus on plastics has only taken place since the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted by the EU in January 2018 69 . This stems from the 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan:

‘In December 2014, the Commission decided to withdraw its legislative proposal on waste, but the Commission committed at the same time to use its new horizontal working methods to present a new package by the end of 2015 which would cover the full economic cycle, not just waste reduction targets, drawing on the expertise of all the Commission’s services.’

The EU’s strategy lays out an optimistic vision of the future by applying crystal ball thinking. The key focus is the recycling of plastics by 2030. It mentions deposit schemes, but without much detail, stating that ‘deposits systems can contribute to achieving very high levels of recycling’ and that they can also ‘help reduce littering and boost recycling’.

The paper does however cite some key facts concerning the problem, noting that within the EU ‘Reuse and recycling of end-of-life plastics is very low’. As such:

‘Around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated in Europe every year. Less than 30% of such waste is collected for recycling. Of this amount, a significant share leaves the EU to be treated in third countries, where different environmental standards may apply.’

At the same time, landfilling and incineration rates of plastic waste remain high 31% and 39%, respectively and while landfill has decreased over the past decade, incineration has grown. This is the EU’s vision for a future circular economy:

‘A smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry, where design and production fully respects the needs of reuse, repair, and recycling, brings growth and jobs to Europe and helps cut EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels.’

The paper goes on to elaborate on the proposals on how this can be done, with the specific measures outlined in an annexes paper that for some reason is separate from the main document!

The measures involve the updating of elements of EU law such as the Packaging Waste Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The optimism continues as relevant stakeholders are ‘encouraged’ to engage with the process. The paper sums up:

  1. The European Commission calls on stakeholders to come forward with voluntary pledges to boost the uptake of recycled plastics. The objective is to ensure that by 2025 ten million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into new products on the EU market.
  2. Interested companies and/or industry associations have until 30 June 2018 to submit their pledges to the following email address:
  3. When sending in their pledges, stakeholders are asked to provide the European Commission with data illustrating how their pledge contributes to achieving the quantitative objective set in paragraph 1. Such data will be treated confidentially and will be used exclusively for the purpose of monitoring overall progress towards the quantitative objective. Pledges will be put under quality check, and assessed against their reliability and ability to meet declared deadlines.
  4. When sending in their pledges on recycled content, stakeholders are welcome to make pledges covering other aspects which are relevant to the strategy, such as design for recyclability.
  5. The pledges received will be made public through a dedicated webpage.
  6. By 31 October 2018, the Commission will present an assessment of the pledges received and their overall contribution to the quantitative objective set in paragraph 1. Should the contribution be deemed insufficient, the Commission will start work on possible next steps, including regulatory action.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) has been monitoring the EU’s progress on these issues closely. Along with a wider Group of NGO’s they formed the Rethink Plastic Alliance, part of the wider global Break Free From Plastic movement:

‘Rethink Plastic is part of the global Break Free From Plastic movement, which consists of over 800 NGOs and millions of citizens worldwide. Collectively, this growing global movement systematically addresses the environmental, economic and social impacts of plastic pollution. Based in Brussels, Rethink Plastic brings together seven leading European NGOs, with hundreds of thousands of active groups, supporters and citizens in every EU Member State. Whilst each of the alliance’s members has policy and technical expertise from a variety of relevant fields, we have one common aim: a future that is free from plastic pollution.’

FoEE reacted to the new strategy saying:

“Today’s Strategy recognises that we need to rethink the way we produce plastic and deal with the waste. Europe can no longer keep exporting its plastic products, plastic waste and false management solutions to the Global South. The Commission now needs to show it’s serious about tackling these injustices by making sure we reduce the quantity of plastics produced in the first place — anything else will be a failure.”

Rethink Plastic:

  • Welecomes the intention behind the objective that all plastics packaging on the EU market can be reused or recycled by 2030. However the absence of a clear target and the inclusion that recycling must be “cost-effective”, lessens the impact of the aim. This needs to be seen as a real opportunity to make all plastic packaging toxic free and environmentally sound.
  • Underlines that voluntary agreements and pledges expected to be developed by industry should in no way replace political action.
  • Welcomes measures to prevent the loss of pre-production plastic pellets, the second largest source of microplastic pollution, and notably the potential development of a certification scheme along the plastics supply chain to prevent pellet loss.
  • Welcomes the development of new measures to reduce the loss of fishing gear at sea, including possible recycling targets or deposit schemes to disincentivise dumping.
  • The Rethink Plastic alliance expects the European Commission to deliver, within its term, on the above commitments, and show true global leadership towards a future free from plastic pollution.

In the next part, the work of The Ellen Macarthur Foundation will be considered.

Part 2, 3

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