Circular economy: Turning a problem into an opportunity

Written by Simona Bonafè on 24 January 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

The circular economy is a chance to save our planet, but for the transition to happen we need a clear policy framework, writes Simona Bonafè.

Simona Bonafè | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


I strongly believe waste management represents an opportunity for Europe, rather than a problem to be solved. 

The studies that have guided my work on the circular economy demonstrate that with an intelligent approach, we could increase energy efficiency and reduce EU dependence on resources, have a positive impact on GDP and employment and reduce the raw materials deficit which puts us in a poor position when it comes to our competitiveness worldwide.

As such, I am convinced that EU objectives in terms of reuse and recycling of waste must be increasingly ambitious to ensure full transition to a circular economy. 


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One of the key measures to support this transition is to progressively eliminate the landfill disposal of non-hazardous waste.

The current linear development model, which can be summarised as 'take, produce, consume and dispose of', is beginning to show signs of having reached its limit. 

The effects are there for all to see: our planet is heating up and the resources on which we depend are becoming scarce. Within this context, it would not be out of place to speculate that demand for raw material by the world economy could increase by 50 per cent in the next 15 years.

The circular economy is a chance to reverse this trend; it provides a circular development model which keeps materials and their value circulating within the economic system for as long as possible, optimising the integrated waste cycle in order to put resources to efficient use. 

Reuse, recycling and recovery are becoming the key words around which a new paradigm needs to be built to promote sustainability, innovation and competitiveness, so that waste becomes a resource rather than a problem.

It is therefore essential that we enter this process with a clear and well-defined framework. To do so, we need a system of regulations and laws that lay down objectives and strategies. 

Only with ambitious policies, backed by legislation capable of sending the right signals to investors, will we achieve real systemic change. 

Failure by Europe to embark quickly and with conviction along this route, could impede and undermine progress towards the circular economy, and hence toward a virtuous and just system.

The first step taken has been to act to obtain a reduction in the amount of waste being disposed of in landfill, a pre-requisite for kick-starting the innovation of product processes and business models on which the circular economy is based.

The transformation of the EU into a green, low-carbon economy which uses resources efficiently is already one of the main objectives of the seventh European environmental action programme, and it is worth recalling that Europe has committed itself to achieving the UN's sustainable development targets.

I would like to comment on a concept particularly dear to me: prevention. Prevention is at the very top of the waste hierarchy. The main focus when revising the directive in line with circular economy principles must be to quantitatively reduce waste, while at the same time introducing qualitative measures to improve the eco-design of products.

This will be the first step of a journey in which Europe must progress quickly towards a new and virtuous system that will enable us to overcome the challenges of the future, particularly for the good of future generations.

We must act to strengthen industrial symbiosis practices whereby production residues are considered to be by-products, actual new raw materials, and no longer therefore waste to be disposed of.

Among the European Parliament's priority objectives are ambitious measures and targets for the reduction of food waste and marine litter. I hope that the European Commission will lead in this respect, creating a unique European methodology capable of producing comparable data on the results achieved by the various member states.

Until now, one of the obstacles preventing the development of a circular economy in the EU has been the failure to develop a true secondary raw material market.

As such, we need ambitious targets in terms of preparing urban waste for reuse and recycling. Only in this way can we be sure that waste with high economic value is recovered and recycled as quality secondary raw material.

And it is for this reason that, in combination with the target to progressively eliminate landfilling, we have set member states the target of preparing 60 per cent of urban waste for reuse and recycling by 2025 and 70 per cent by 2030, in line with Parliament's 9 July 2015 resolution, 'Resource efficiency: moving towards a circular economy' and the conclusions of the Commission's impact assessment of 2 July 2014.

We must now work to clarify certain elements contained in the directive, particularly some of the definitions, in order to further bolster our waste hierarchy policy.

 

About the author

Simona Bonafè (S&D, IT) is Parliament's rapporteur on waste

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