In a changing globalised world, better management of resources is essential, as is the need to concentrate efforts to efficiently respond to the main challenges (including jobs and growth, the investment agenda, climate and energy, social agenda and industrial innovation) that the European Union needs to face.
As a follow-up of previous policy commitments (including the Resource–Efficient Europe flagship initiative and roadmap, the European Industrial Renaissance and the Innovation Union flagship initiative), the European Commission published an action plan on 2 December 2015 that establishes a programme of actions for making the transition towards a more circular economy. The proposed actions support the Circular Economy in each step of the value chain (from production to consumption, repair and remanufacturing, waste management, and secondary raw materials that are fed back into the economy), and through specific sectors and horizontal enabling measures.
JRC scientific and technical support to policies for a more circular EU economy is necessarily based on a lifecycle approach, which considers all relevant interactions associated with a product, service, activity, or entity from a supply-chain perspective. This approach requires attention to social, economic and environmental considerations and assessments (such as resource supply and use, social imbalances, and the emissions into air, water and soil that occur along the value chain). Examples of JRC scientific and technical support to the Circular Economy are given below, following the structure of the EU action plan.
In its aim to transform the economy through more circular and sustainable processes, the European Commission's Circular Economy package calls for the use of the Ecodesign Directive to address circular economy considerations for various priority product groups.
The JRC has developed the REAPro (Resource Efficiency Assessment of Products) method to assess the material efficiency of products according to several parameters, including reusability/recyclability/recoverability, recycled content, use of key resources (including critical raw materials), and durability (including reparability sand upgradability). The method facilitates analysis of the material efficiency of representative products in order to identify material intensity hotspots, and to transparently derive relevant product criteria.
When implemented in product policies such as the Ecodesign Directive (and EU Ecolabel scheme), such product criteria can contribute to improved material efficiency in the economy as a whole and hence reduce residual waste and overall lifecycle impacts. Implementing these criteria in the context of Energy Labelling could also contribute to more circular consumption patterns. REAPro has been applied to various product groups (e.g. electronic displays, computers, washing machines, dishwashers, enterprises servers, vacuum cleaners) and the results have been used to prepare criteria for various product policy instruments (in particular the Ecodesign Directive and the EU Ecolabel scheme).
The JRC is currently working on the application of the REAPro method to additional product groups. The JRC is also working with the Directorate-General for the Environment, the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, and European standardisation organisations on the development of standardised methods to measure (and enhance the verifiability of) the circular performance of products.
Lifecycle datasets are fundamental to the assessment of many circular economy instruments, including the measurement of Product and Organisation Environmental Footprints. Lifecycle analyses are used to compare options and identify hotspots which can then be used as input to instruments such as those related to ecodesign and ecolabelling. Lifecycle data provide information on the use of raw materials and emissions associated with the value chains of goods and services, from the extraction of raw materials through to their production, use, and end of life.
In accordance with it commitments as laid out in the Integrated Product Policy Communication, the JRC established the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment (EPLCA). The EPLCA facilitates the robustness and availability of lifecycle data and methods. In particular, it supports the European Reference Life Cycle Database (ELCD) and the Life Cycle Data Network (LCDN). Through the ELCD, frontrunner businesses provide coherent and quality-assured lifecycle data in line with European Commission recommendations. The LCDN complements this, gathering data from a global network of databases in a coherent manner with common minimum quality requirements. The data in the LCDN are provided from worldwide sources, including governments, business, and academia.
Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF)
The JRC has been supporting the development of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) in close cooperation with the Directorate-General for the Environment and in response to several policy documents.
The PEF and OEF are methods to evaluate the performance of products (goods and services) and organisations, respectively, taking a lifecycle approach. These methods are based on existing, extensively tested, and widely used methods that have been further developed to address the following objectives:
- Applicable without having to consult a series of other documents (i.e. a ‘stand-alone’ document);
- Provide systemic evaluation along the entire lifecycle;
- Provide consistent coverage of potential environmental impacts;
- Increase the robustness and comparability of the methods and results of environmental assessments.
The PEF and OEF are developed within the Commission's Single Market for Green Products initiative (COM(2013) 196 final and Recommendation 2013/179/EU). There are currently (December 2015) 26 EF pilots to develop product-category and sector-specific guidance with strong participation from industry: 13 PEF pilots in the non-food sector, 11 PEF pilots in the food sector and two OEF pilots. The process is structured, open and policy oriented, and Member States and NGOs are involved in the EF Steering Committee.
The PEF and OEF can also contribute to the implementation of more circular production by assessing the entire supply chain for environmental hotspots, the benefits of using recycled materials as input to products, and the recyclability of products at their end-of-life stage.
The Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) calls for the use of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) in order to ensure that the most environmentally sound waste management options are identified and, ultimately, improve the performance of European waste management. In response, the JRC, in cooperation with the Directorate-General for the Environment, has developed user-specific guidelines for the management of waste streams using Life Cycle Assessment.
These guidelines focus on the most relevant technical aspects to be considered when applying Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to the waste management sector. They build on the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 14040 and 14044 standards for LCA and the International Reference Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) Handbook. They are intended for use by waste managers, technicians and LCA practitioners, but also provide policy-makers with insights and information on how to use LCT and LCA to support environmentally sound policy-making in the context of waste management.
The JRC has developed lifecycle-based indicators to evaluate and monitor the environmental impacts arising from the management of a number of key streams of municipal waste. These indicators provide relevant quantitative information on which waste streams have the highest environmental impacts, and can help better focus actions towards more sustainable European waste management.
From Waste to Resources: boosting the market for secondary raw materials and water re-use
Secondary raw materials
The European Raw Materials Initiative and associated European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials promote the increased recovery of selected raw materials from waste, which are known as ‘secondary raw materials'.
It should be noted that the recovery and use of secondary raw materials should not result in higher environmental and social burdens than the use of primary raw materials. It is therefore essential to use lifecycle-based approaches to compare primary and secondary raw material production using data such as those available via the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment’s tools. Such lifecycle data are also fundamental to measurements such as those of the PEF/OEF, and to focusing efforts and evaluating options for ecodesign, ecolabelling, and other instruments.
Non-toxic circular economy
A more circular economy also requires the promotion of non-toxic products and the better tracking of chemicals of concern (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic substances; Substances of Very High Concern) in products, to facilitate the recycling and uptake of secondary materials. The JRC is addressing the presence of substances of concern in products through the application of the REAPro method (see Product design).
The JRC is also trying to better identify and quantify substances of concern in products, e.g. through the development of appropriate and workable toxicity impact categories in the context of the PEF. This research could help better align product, waste and substance policies.
The JRC also carries out research into water recycling in the EU in order to improve water supply options, with a focus on agricultural irrigation, aquifer re-charging and multiple uses in the urban environment. It provides key input for the development of minimum EU quality requirements to encourage water reuse, which could be used to develop a regulation establishing common standards. These requirements must ensure appropriate health and environmental protection in order to build public confidence in water re-use practices.
The JRC, with the support of internationally renowned experts on water re-use and in collaboration with the World Health Organization( WHO), is currently developing criteria for quality standards based on scientific evidence and international guidelines. These activities are underpinned by experiments carried out to identify new compounds that could be possible issues of concern, as well as assessments of innovative approaches for better water governance and citizen engagement at the municipal level - a condition for the successful promotion of water recycling measures.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 30% of world food production for human consumption is wasted. In the EU, about 123 kg of food per person per year is wasted, with high variance among EU countries. Most of EU food waste (42%) is generated at home, 39% is generated by manufacturing and processing activities, 14% by restaurants and canteens, and 5% by retailers.
The JRC calculates statistics on food waste and avoidable food waste per country, based on JRC methods related to water, nitrogen, energy, and greenhouse gas footprints. Understanding what, why, and how much consumers waste is essential to find solutions that reduce excessive waste of resources. The JRC is also working on defining, from a lifecycle perspective, the best way to recover and prevent residual food waste. Its findings are also used in other production and consumption contexts, for example in the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Round Table initiative, and food-related PEF pilots.
Critical Raw Materials
The Raw Materials Initiative highlights the importance of ensuring undistorted and reliable access to raw materials for the EU economy. The JRC is supporting the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs in the review and update of the methodology to identify raw materials that a) have a high risk of potential supply disruption and b) have significant potential consequences as a result of a disruption to the EU economy. In this context, the JRC also facilitates the EU Raw Materials Knowledge Base, particularly through the Raw Materials Information System.
The JRC provides inputs through material flow analysis and lifecycle assessment, both at a general level and for selected raw materials. This includes promoting methods to help better analyse information on raw material use with tools such as lifecycle assessment, to help identify where, and to which extent, critical raw materials may be used in supply chains and/or are recovered from waste as secondary raw materials. Such analyses also help focus efforts to promote the use of selected materials in ecodesign, ecolabelling, and other instruments to help avoid trade-offs.
In response, the JRC is developing lifecycle-based methodologies for the systematic consideration of critical raw materials (CRM) in product supply chains. These methods help track the flow of CRMs in the economy, and assess the environmental impacts of their extraction, use and end-of-life processes. The methods build on proposals for product policy criteria and on existing lifecycle assessment methods. Insights are provided at the micro- and macro scales using lifecycle-based indicators. The JRC has also established links with other research bodies in an effort to jointly improve current methods for criticality evaluation and the periodical revision of the EU CRM list.
Accessibility of the critical raw materials in end-of-life products can also be ensured by Ecodesign measures (see Product design).
Biomass and bio-based products
The Bioeconomy Strategy and its Action Plan (COM(2012) 60 final) aim to pave the way to a more innovative, resource-efficient and competitive society that reconciles food security with the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes, while ensuring environmental protection. The Action Plan foresees the establishment of a Bioeconomy Observatory that will regularly assess the progress and impact of the bioeconomy and develop forward-looking modelling tools. The importance of biomass and bio-based products has been re-iterated by the recent Circular Economy package.
The JRC makes methodological and analytical contributions to the design of the Bioeconomy Observatory and, since March 2013, is responsible for establishing this observatory. As part of the scientific consortium, JRC activities include the application of integrated sustainability assessment tools for evaluating the transition to a European knowledge-based bioeconomy in a resource-constrained world, as well as contributing to the comprehensive environmental sustainability assessment of various bio-based chains, processes and products, with a particular emphasis on lifecycle methodologies and assessments.
The transition to a Circular Economy is a systemic change, in which innovation will play a key role. In line with the European Commission’s Eco-innovation Action Plan (2011), new methods, technologies, processes, services and business models will be needed in order to rethink our production and consumption methods, and to transform waste into high-value-added products.
The JRC contributes to this innovative transition through the development of environmental assessment methods that enable innovators to assess the lifecycle environmental performance of products. Such analyses can encourage and reward eco-innovation in industry, including the substitution of hazardous substances or scarce resources, and enhanced recyclability at end-of-life stages. Examples of JRC activities include the participation in the Harwin FP7 project, which aims to develop windows that reduce the energy consumption of buildings whilst simultaneously ensuring the efficient use of material and resources. More circular building products will contribute to the generation of less waste from construction and demolition.
Monitoring progress towards a circular economy
Raw Materials Information System
The recently adopted Circular Economy Package calls for “improving the availability of data on secondary raw materials… and for further development of the recently initiated Raw Materials Information System.” The Package also mentions the need to support “EU-wide research on raw materials flows”.
The JRC actively contributes to the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials. This includes providing support to the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs for the development of the Raw Materials Scoreboard and the EU Raw Materials Knowledge Base. In response to these commitments, the JRC has launched and manages the Raw Materials Information System (RMIS), as a key input to the management and enhancement of the EU Raw Materials Knowledge Base.
The Raw Materials Scoreboard includes information on the extent of secondary raw materials’ production and use in the EU, building on sources provided via the Knowledge Base. It can also be used to monitor progress towards a Circular Economy. In this context, the JRC works on the further development of a circularity diagram of mass flows within the EU economy. A good understanding of the social and environmental considerations related to the supply of raw materials, both primary and secondary, is also supported by specific lifecycle data (see Production processes).
Life Cycle Indicators
The JRC has also developed prototype environmental lifecycle indicators, including the Resource Efficiency Indicators, the Basket-of-Product Indicators and the Waste Management Indicators. These lifecycle-based indicators are intended to help monitor progress towards circularity and sustainability and to provide an integrated view of the links between consumption, production, resource depletion, reuse, recycling, environmental impacts and waste generation at EU and Member State levels.
The Resource Efficiency lifecycle indicators help assess the overall impacts of resource extraction, use and consumption (including imports and exports) in the EU. They are being further developed to encompass additional Member States (currently 27 of the EU-28) and to include longer time series data (currently1990-2010).
The Basket of Products indicators focus on the impacts of a set of products that are representative of key areas of consumption (food, mobility and housing), from the extraction of raw materials to the end of their lives. The set of indicators and underpinning models could be used as basis for assessing the impacts and benefits of applying Circular Economy principles to food-, mobility- and housing-related products. Life Cycle Indicators can also be applied to waste management (see Waste management).