Circular Economy (and why chemistry matters)

An astronaut, President Juncker, and a chemist walk into a bar, what do they have in common?

If your answer is “circular economy” (CE), which coincidently is in the title of this article, then you are correct. Circular economy has been a rather omnipresent term in European debates since the launch of the first CE Package by the European Commission in 2014, but before going into the latest developments it is useful to go back the 1960s to better understand the concept of CE.

Understanding Circular Economy

The ideas behind CE were initiated by many and are difficult to trace back but one of its main founders was the economist Kenneth E Boulding with his 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. In this essay Boulding defends an economic model where humans do not act with the mind-set of cowboys in the Wild West, using resources without any concerns as if they were infinite, but instead act like astronauts living in a spaceship with very limited resources. Contrary to the cowboy linear-economy model of buy, consume and dispose, in a “closed economy” (the term “circular economy” would only appear some years later), resources would be carefully used and waste would be used as a valuable resource hence assuring the long-term sustainability of the surrounding finite environment. Ideally, this would translate into a zero-waste economy, or as the European Commission states more pragmatically, in a CE “the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimised” [1].

Wasting an Opportunity?

So what is the current situation regarding the production of waste in the European Union?

Environmental concerns have been a priority in the agendas of many researchers and policy-makers and there have been many positive developments in the past decades but there are still some disquieting indicators[2]: the EU currently produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of waste per year, this gives around 5 tonnes of waste per inhabitant, out of which about 40% goes to landfilling, incineration without proper energy recovery and other “disposal” methods as defined by the current legislation. Also worrying is the increase of hazardous waste production per inhabitant per year which occurred between 2004 (180kg/inhabitant) and 2014 (188kg/inhabitant) and the fact that around 20% of hazardous waste is not treated properly. Bear in mind that this is the situation in the EU, which is frequently accused of over-regulating or being too strict, so imagine the situation in other less regulated regions (and you will actually have to imagine it, as the data collection will not be as complete nor as transparent as the datasets published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU).

We should also add to this equation the fact that Europe does not have in its territory many of the natural resources, i.e. raw materials, in the amounts it requires for the production of energy and goods. This means that landfilling is a wasted opportunity to recover and reuse valuable materials.

The Circular Economy Package

In 2014, the European Commission, the EU institution with legislative initiative, put forward a first proposal on CE, but this was withdrawn in early 2015 with the Commission promising a future, more ambitious legislative package on the topic. A new package was presented by the Commission in December 2015 and included an action plan and four new proposals for directives[3] that will amend previous legal acts: a Waste Directive; a Landfill Directive; a Packaging Directive; and (this is actually its name): a Directive on end-of-life vehicles, on batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators, and on waste electrical and electronic equipment.

These four proposals, which were made a priority for 2017 by the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union, are currently under discussion

Among others, these new regulation proposals set more ambitious waste-management targets regarding reuse, recycling and landfilling. They also promote synergies between industries that can use each others waste as input for their own production processes, and promote the certification of treatment facilities for some types of waste, thus creating better conditions for a market for secondary raw materials, where confidence in the quality of the recovered/recycled materials is essential.

These four proposals, which were made a priority for 2017 by the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union, are currently under discussion and the Parliament has recently voted on amendments for setting higher  targets.[4]

Apart from these four core legislative proposals there are many other actions currently being developed or planned at the EU level: a revised regulation for fertilisers with a special focus on organic and waste-based fertilisers is currently under discussion; a new legislative proposal on water reuse, namely setting the standards for reuse, is expected this year; the creation of a plastics strategy is also planned for 2017, addressing issues such as recyclability, biodegradability, or the presence of hazardous substances of concern in plastics; best available techniques reference documents (BREFs), which are documents that share and promote best techniques available in numerous industrial fields (even though some of these date from the early 2000s and should be updated with the latest science available); Horizon 2020, which has many calls related with CE topics, namely under the societal challenge “Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials”; and the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, which will be a central hub for discussing where to go next, share best practices and possibly coordinate research efforts in this field. This list is not exhaustive but I believe it illustrates how encompassing CE is, and how present it is in the EU policy agenda.

The Role of Chemistry

So where will chemistry be in all these actions? The answer is quite straight forward – everywhere. Just to name some examples, chemistry will be developing cleaner sources of energy, namely through the direct conversion of sunlight[5], while greener formulations will allow the clean production of components requiring less raw materials and less energy input to manufacture them. Chemists will be developing non-toxic materials, which are easier to recycle and methods to collect raw materials from many different waste streams such as common sludges, animal and vegetable waste, mineral and solidified waste, etc. Chemistry will also be developing the standards and methods to test the quality of recovered raw materials as well as the quality of air, soils, and water.

There is still a long way to achieve an ideal zero-waste economy: more research is needed, companies must create greener, more durable and modular products, consumers attitude towards consumption has to change, and a clearer, more coherent and less fragmented policy framework should be implemented. Circular Economy is a great environmental and economic opportunity and EuCheMS will make sure that all societal agents are aware that chemistry is the key element in making it possible.

[1] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:8a8ef5e8-99a0-11e5-b3b7-01aa75ed71a1.0012.03/DOC_1&format=HTML&lang=EN&parentUrn=COM:2015:614:FIN
[2] http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Waste_statistics
[3] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm
[4] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20170120STO59356/waste-more-ambitious-targets-towards-a-circular-economy
[5] https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/content/direct-conversion-solar-energy-renewables-and-more

Bruno Vilela
EuCheMS Public Affairs Officer