A year ago now, the Juncker Commission adopted a project to rethink Europe's economy. Known as the Circular Economy Package, it's a recognition that the world is changing, and that the resource-intensive practices that once brought so much growth are unsuited to the 21st century. Fitness gurus talk about the need to be lean. It's time for a lean economy.
A leaner, more circular economy will bring great opportunities for Europe's citizens, cutting waste and energy use and benefiting the environment. It will mean local jobs in green industries, and more competitive companies that grow in a sustainable way.
The package aims for that leanness through more than 50 measures, including legal proposals to boost recycling and cut waste. Twelve months on, how is this exercise programme progressing? Are we building lean muscles, or has it gone the way of so many New Year resolutions?
We aren't there yet – major changes don't happen overnight – but we are making good headway. 2016 saw important first steps in areas like food waste, ecodesign, organic fertilisers, guarantees for consumers, innovation and investment. This week sees the launch of a new proposal to ensure that waste incineration is in line with the principles of circular economy.
The strategic support from Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans and Vice President Jyrki Katainen has given us the platform to showcase the environment and economic policy working together.
This Commission has made big commitments – globally with the sustainable development goals and within Europe with the Juncker Investment plan. The circular economy package helps us deliver on both.
These circular principles are gradually being integrated into industrial best practices, green public procurement, and the construction and water sectors. Companies across the EU are embracing these changes, from Umicore in Belgium with its closed-loop recycling of batteries and automotive parts, to RePack in Finland with its sustainable packaging system for retailers and shoppers. Circular business models are coming to the fore, as firms like Michelin switch from retailing products to selling performance and usage contracts, cutting resource use with benefits for customers and companies alike.
The proposals to boost recycling are progressing well through the European Parliament and the Council. In a marked show of unity, all three institutions have singled them out as a priority file, to be completed or brought to completion as swiftly as possible.
2016 was just the start, and more major elements are still to come. A new strategy for plastics is in the pipeline, looking at how we could recycle more efficiently, prevent it from leaking into the environment, and decoupling production from the use of fossil fuels (as most plastics are still oil derivatives). An initiative to reduce the toxic chemical content in manufactured goods is on the way, as are proposals for minimum quality requirements for reused water. A framework to monitor progress towards the Circular Economy should be in place by June. Also in June, Green Week – Europe's biggest annual environmental conference – will focus on green jobs, and the potential for more green employment around the union.
As ever, funding is key. More than 100 circular economy-related projects have now been identified as 'best practices', from sources like LIFE, the EU fund for environment, Horizon2020, the EU research fund, and the European Fund for Regional Development. Europe is never short of ideas, and EU funds are helping turn these ideas into realities, from the CABRISS project to develop closed-loop production for the photovoltaic industry to the ANAGENNISI project to reuse tyre components in innovative concrete applications with low environmental impacts.
This week sees the launch of a new platform that will bring together the European Investment Bank with national banks and other partners to share best practices on financing circular economy projects and business models. The idea is to publicise circular economy thinking more widely, improving the bankability of circular economy projects, and ensuring that existing instruments for circular economy projects are actually used to the full.
Circularity isn't about sacrifice, or giving things up. It's more about rethinking our approach, moving away from wasteful ways and embracing the future we know we need. It's a process, not an end – and one year on, we're well on the way.