To most people the idea of a circular economy remains an abstract if not far-off concept. While ‘going green’ is a growing popular theme around the world, many people are not yet aware of the greater changes to our way of living that will have to be made to ensure a sustainable future, and secure our long-term well-being.

Our current resource use is unsustainable. We are consuming and extracting more raw materials than our planet can provide in the long term. By 2050, there will be 6 to 7 billion middle-class consumers around the world which will put increased pressures on consumption and the environment. Our modern lives demand ever increasing convenience, which has its costs. Just look at the use of plastics, they are poorly recycled and many plastic products end up in our oceans and seas causing real damage.

Europe’s long-term goals

The European Union and others around the world are making significant progress in combatting climate change by reducing our carbon emissions. We have shown that curbing emissions is not detrimental to economic growth, quite the opposite. Since 1990, the EU’s gross domestic product has grown by 50% while greenhouse gases have fallen 24%. More people are doing their part by car-sharing, cutting their energy use, or embracing recycling and sorting their household garbage. These are good steps, but we know these measures will not be enough to ensure that we attain a low-carbon future or that we reach the European Union’s long-term goal of ‘living well within the limits of our planet.’

We are seeing signs that there is a growing public awareness of the problem and new policy plans are being developed that will fundamentally change the way we produce, consume and live. These policy plans involve integrated and systemic responses with a long-term perspective. In late 2015, the European Commission put forward a legislative circular economy package, which is Europe’s answer for the way ahead. It covers different stages of a product’s extended lifecycle from production and consumption to waste management. The proposed actions are designed to benefit both the environment and the economy. They are aimed at keeping physical materials and their value as long as possible in the economic cycle, reducing waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These proposals are underpinned by 54 actions, which are currently being translated into concrete policies, spanning numerous economic activities and sectors.

Shifting to a circular economy will help alleviate the environmental and human health problems caused by our current ‘make-use-dispose’ linear economy. But it will require massive changes to production and consumption systems, going well beyond resource efficiency and recycling waste.

Building knowledge and monitoring progress

A key aspect to making the circular economy a reality will be building knowledge, monitoring progress and making sure policy makers have the understanding, data and information they need to help guide the development of supportive and flexible policies. This is a key task we have undertaken at the European Environment Agency.

I have recently joined around 1500 policymakers, researchers, and business leaders from more than 100 countries in Helsinki at the World Circular Economy Forum to share and discuss ideas, visions, and solutions on how to mainstream the circular economic model. At the conference, the EEA stressed the importance of building knowledge. Our Agency presented its second in a series of planned circular economy reports. Our latest report ’Circular by design — products in a circular economy’ talks about the drivers of product design and how emerging production and consumption trends can enhance or hamper more circular material use. For instance, how do emerging innovations and trends, like modular mobile phones or 3D printing of spare parts fit into ‘going circular’? ‘Circular by design’ will not happen by itself. It will need to be underpinned by strong public and private governance structures, which will give a roadmap for the way ahead. Society and business will also need to actively look at what market conditions, new technologies, and what research and development should be pushed.

We all have a role to play in supporting the transition toward a circular economy. It is crucial we all have the right information and solutions at hand to make the big transition. What is clear is that if we don’t come with disruptive innovation and technologies to speed up our move to the circular and low-carbon economy, it won’t happen.

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Last modified: January 15, 2021