EU needs vision and courage for successful circular economy

Written by Hester Klein Lankhorst on 25 January 2016 in Thought Leader
Thought Leader

We need to be daring and look beyond the limits of existing technologies, says Hester Klein Lankhorst.

"By 2040 the world will be divided into power blocs that each pursue their own interests and compete fiercely with one another. There is a shortage of oil and other raw materials, and prices are high. Europe must become therefore independent of the rest of the world and make sparing use of available raw materials."

This quotation is from 'Fort Europa' (Fortress Europe), one of the four future scenarios that the Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging (KIDV) commissioned in 2013 to stimulate the transition to a circular economy.

'Closing the loop', the European Commission's package of policies for the circular economy, fits into the scenario described in Fortress Europe.


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Though various stakeholders are critical of the level of ambition of the package, it is an important step towards maintaining the value of raw materials in the European economy for as long as possible and minimising the generation of waste.

For example the development of quality standards for secondary raw materials. This is important, as recycled material cannot otherwise win the battle with virgin materials as companies naturally look at both quality and price when deciding whether to use recycled materials.

So, for truly large-scale applications, we must look at optimising quality and price, and the relationship between the two.

To really make progress here, it is crucial to use trends and future scenarios in determining the action perspectives businesses and governments already have, and the steps they can already undertake.

In this way, we can avoid the risk of just patching up existing systems using current technologies, which will lead to low returns on investment. To achieve effective and future-proof gains, genuine systemic innovations are needed.

Like the Netherlands, Europe will be confronted with the need to organise the broad collection of plastic household waste.

The collection and recycling of plastic packaging waste from households has risen significantly in recent years in the Netherlands: from 16 kton in 2009 to 129 kton in 2014, which represents a recycling rate of 50 percent.

While this rise is expected to continue, the market for recycled plastic is still not sufficiently mature. This is due in part to the quality of the recycled materials.

So new technologies, such as the chemical recycling of certain types of plastic, are necessary to compete with virgin materials. However such innovations require significant investment, which simply will not be made without a clear course being set out.

These are no easy steps. Not least because there are major interests that will benefit from maintaining the old systems and because it implies the development of new systems.

But regardless of which scenario turns out to be true, it is and will remain essential for Europe's position in the global market of raw materials to grow towards a circular economy. That is why these steps are so vital. Demanding vision, courage and knowledge of this market.

 

About the author

Hester Klein Lankhorst is director of KIDV, the Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging

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