JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE

Green and circular economy

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.

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Production
 

Product design

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.

 

Production processes

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.

Consumption
 

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.

 

Waste management

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.

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'.

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.

Water re-use

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.

Priority areas


Food waste

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.

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.

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.

Innovation

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.

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.

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.