What goes around
Circular economy takes the centre stage in European climate action
Two weeks ago, a washed-up carcass of a whale was found on the coast Sardinia, Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. The gruesome discovery was yet another indicator for why tackling plastic waste has taken the centre stage of the EU’s environmental action, with the new single-use plastic legislation coming into force soon. The plastic plan is one of the central elements of the Commission’s wider circular economy strategy, which can – if successfully completed – decrease the EU’s carbon emissions by more than a half.
‘The Council urges that the main policy foundations for a sustainable future include a decisive transition towards a circular economy.’ Conclusions of the General Affairs Council meeting on 9 April push for the EU to become a “trailblazer” for sustainable development by striving for climate neutrality and promoting safe low carbon energy. The Council recognises sustainability of innovation and health of citizens as the enablers of globally competitive economy and calls for the European Commission to use the relevant funding tools to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the conclusions highlight the need for a strong involvement of civil society organisations and the private sector stakeholders in achieving climate action goals.
Circular economy proposals have featured particularly heavily in the current legislative cycle with of many of the measures still needing to be implemented under the supervision of the next Commission configuration. Launch with an action plan in 2015, the EU’s circular economy strategy plays a crucial role in the bloc’s efforts to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and has so far resulted in 54 actions being either completed or under implementation in the member states. Over the 2016-2020 period the EU has pledged over €10 billion to support managed transition to a circular economy with a priority status given to the transition within the EU development and cohesion funds in the new 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework proposal. In March, negotiators between EU institutions reached an agreement to ringfence 35% of the proposed €100 billion research budget in 2021-2027 for climate-friendly technologies.
The most visible of these measures has been the highly popular proposal to ban and phase out single-use plastic within the EU. With the Council expected to grant its final approval to the legislation soon, the member states will have two years to fully implement the new targets of 90% collection target for bottles and new labels to help consumers to correctly dispose products. The measures also include the banning of certain plastic cutlery and cotton buds with plastic. Supported by the “Blue Planet effect”, the single-plastic use legislation has moved from the drafting stage to being in force within a year – a miracle in the EU, where the decision-making process is often measured in dog years.
The EU has set a 50% plastic recycling target by 2025, while some member states, such as the Netherlands and France, have more ambitious national plans in place. The Dutch plan, for example, aims to ensure that 70% of all single-use plastic packaging is recycled by 2025. Currently around 30% of the 26 million tonnes of annual plastic waste in the EU is collected for recycling, of which only about a third is actually converted into reusable material. As a result, producers converting plastics do not at the moment have a stable enough supply of suitable waste. One reason for this is the low local collection rates of plastic. Another is the lack of investment to technology that is capable of converting composites into consistent quality secondary materials. Improving these rates to the target level will require enhanced cooperation between public and private sector stakeholders in the member states supported by the EU.
Alongside plastic, a 2018 study by Material Economics, showed that by strengthening the sustainable circulation of also steel, aluminium, and cement, the EU could reduce its carbon footprint by a whopping 56% – or around 300 megatons of CO2 per annum. Globally, the UN has called for greater reuse of materials and recently published a study showing that extraction and primary processing of metals account for 26% of all carbon emissions.
Curbing the negative environmental impact of extraction with recycled content would significantly help the common European effort to reach the net-zero emissions target by 2050. Thankfully, significant progress has been made in many sectors. For example, around 83% of the almost 3 million tonnes of stainless steel produced annually by Outokumpu, Europe’s largest steel manufacturer, is made from recycled materials (the current European average stands at around 60%). Ovako, a Swedish engineered steel manufacturer specialising in effective scrap management, currently recycles around 800,000 metric tons of scrap metal each year. Both are signatories to Worldsteel’s Sustainable Development Charter, committing the industry to meet the UN 2030 sustainable development goals.
Cement, on the other hand, is in need of concrete alternatives. Since 1970, the global extraction of sand and gravel for concrete production has increased from 9 billion tonnes to 44 billion tonnes – a number that has only continued to soar as concrete has grown to become the second most consumed product in the world after water. Currently the second most polluting European industry after steelmaking, cement manufacturing contains high process emissions, is highly localised, and lacks obvious replacement materials. Nonetheless, alternative fuels and improved energy efficiency of manufacturing plants are readily available options for the industry to improve its environmental impact.
As things currently stand, available solutions can help Europe reach 75% of the cuts required to become climate neutral, according to the European Climate Foundation’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: From Whether to How’ report. Innovative technologies and approaches are needed, however, in order to reach the remaining 25%, which will require improved cooperation and increased investment from both the public and private sectors. It is essential for the next European legislative cycle to both encourage the widespread implementation of the 75% and support the research into the remaining 25%.