Setting the scene
Moving to a circular economy requires systemic change, affecting all stakeholders in the value-chain, and substantial innovations in technology, organisation, and society as a whole. Green Week opened with an introductory session that set the framework for the discussions to come.
"We can live well, and within the limits of our planet, but we cannot do it by continuing as we are," said Karl Falkenberg, Director-General for Environment at the European Commission, in the opening session of Green Week.
In some ways, the efficiency of our current economic system is our worst enemy, said Janez Potočnik, the European Commissioner for Environment. "The linear system is actually working very well. It is just that the world is changing to make it no longer fit-for-purpose."
Resource-poor, crowded and ageing, "Europe's comparative advantage in the coming decades will be defined by the relative availability of resources – and our ability to maximise their productivity," he said. We need to move away from our throwaway culture and switch to a more circular model. That means innovative products designed to last, to be repaired and to be recycled, and innovative business models to match.
Recycling our riches
Karl Falkenberg agreed: "Waste is too valuable to be wasted." Recycling and 'urban mining' can now produce 350g of gold from one tonne of electronic waste – many times more efficient than traditional mining.
Andreas Papastavrou, Deputy Permanent Representative of Greece to the EU, added that if just 3% of existing gold supplies were recycled in this way, from mobile phones, for example, it could satisfy 100% of new demand. He also emphasised that the EU needs to strengthen the environmental element of the Europe 2020 Strategy to meet the coming challenges, with approaches optimised to suit conditions in the Member States.
On 2 July, the Commission adopted new policies on the circular economy, which set out relevant instruments, a lifecycle approach, and new long-term recycling targets for Europe.
"In the near future, we will be left with fewer resources for more people," said Cyndi Rhoades, Founder and Executive Officer of Worn Again, a company she described as part of "a closed-loop revolution in the fashion industry".
"We are rich, high-consumption countries, so we have the recyclable resources here in Europe", she added. Her company has focused on 'upcycling', using innovative design to turn old textiles into products of higher value, and are now investigating technologies to recover mixed fibres.
She emphasised that businesses need to change the way they measure and report on performance, explaining that PUMA had pioneered the 'environmental profit and loss' concept, and considered that a single model of financial, social and environmental reporting was needed for the whole industry.
Measuring the circular economy
With so many stakeholders and policy areas involved, Europe needs a resource-efficiency target to give "clarity in the direction of travel", said the Commissioner. The Commission has chosen Raw Material Consumption relative to GDP as the best candidate for such an indicator.
"The circular economy is exciting, it is where it's happening," he concluded, and it will be "the great innovation challenge of the next decades. "