Circular Economy – Policies and Learnings from Europe

Several European countries have been introducing and implementing a variety of policies in the area of circular economy. However, further efforts are needed to understand the impact of these policies and to improve the monitoring of progress towards a circular economy. To this end, recognised experts from European environmental agencies contributed to a workshop organised by SATW at the World Resources Forum 2023 (WRF23) in Geneva. 

Circularity rate – are we making any progress?

Recently, there has been a wide range of regulatory developments at the EU level and in several European countries with the aim of fostering the acceleration of the circular economy. Despite these efforts, the latest Circularity Gap Report showed that the global circularity rate (i.e. proportion of materials recycled as part of total material consumption) has fallen from 9.1% in 2018 to 7.2% in 2023. Furthermore, the Circularity Gap Report for individual countries shows remarkable differences in the circularity rate: from 2.4% in Norway (2020) and 6.9% in Switzerland (2023), to 9.7% in Austria (2019) and 24.5% in the Netherlands (2020). 

These figures paint a paradoxical picture: the increased efforts in circular economy policies have not led to an overall increase in the circularity rate. Most importantly, however, the rates underscore the importance of monitoring progress towards a circular economy and its benefits in terms of environmental impact. Without clear indicators and monitoring frameworks, in fact, the actual potential of the circular economy to improve sustainability cannot be measured and verified.

To contribute to this topic, the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) launched the project ‘Circular economy – how good is Switzerland?‘ in 2020 as part of the thematic platform for a sustainable circular economy. This project, led by Dr. Bruno Oberle, WRF President, used interviews and literature studies to analyse the circular economy in Switzerland, its current policies and status, as well as future goals and potential. The project aims to propose new indicators to measure the impact of the circular economy in Switzerland so that it can be better monitored and managed at an aggregate level and also for specific materials and sectors.

Dr. Bruno Oberle, President of the World Resources Forum and initiator of the SATW project “Circular economy – how good is Switzerland?” at the opening of WRF’23 (photo WRF).

Exchange of experiences between the EU, Austria, Germany and Switzerland

Thanks to thematic presentations, the workshop provided an overview of circular economy legislation at the EU level and in the DACH region, with the experiences of Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In addition, the ongoing SATW project provided an overview of the proposal for new indicators to measure the circularity rate. 

Circular economy policy innovation in EU Member States Peder Jensen, European Environment Agency

The number of EU countries with circular economy policy frameworks has increased from 3 in 2016 to 20 in 2022. Further countries are currently working on the introduction of their policy frameworks, while some are already revising their initial frameworks thanks to the introduction of more specific policies. When it comes to CE targets and assessments, only few countries carry out an overall assessment of the transition to a circular economy. However, 15 countries have developed their own monitoring frameworks, mostly based on the EU Circular Economy Monitoring Framework (CEMF).

One key indicator used is the Circular Material Use Rate (CMUR), which indicates the circularity of materials in the economy that is accounted for by recycled rate. Some countries have specific targets (e.g. Estonia CMUR of 30% in 2035, or Latvia’s increase from 6.6% in 2020 to 11.0% in 2027), while other countries are still in the political coordination phase (e.g. Austria and Germany). Apart from the Circular Material Use Rate, countries have also set targets pertaining to other dimensions of the circular economy, e.g. reduction of per-capita material footprint (Austria), minimum quantity of reused goods (Belgium), resource productivity (Estonia), recycled plastics (France), number of regional strategies incorporating CE aspects (Portugal).

Dr. Peder Jensen, European Environment Agency

Several challenges and barriers have been identified in the transition to a circular economy in Europe, pertaining to 5 dimensions: i) institutional and governance, ii) legal and regulatory, iii) market, economics and financial, iv) consumer awareness and behaviour, v) technical and technological. In the technical and technological category, key issues highlighted were the lack of data, lack of harmonized indicators and targets, and too ambitious targets. In this regard, it was recommended the adoption of harmonized data, indicators and targets.

Swiss circular economy policies and regulations Niklas Nierhoff, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment

In Switzerland, current framework conditions are around the ordinance on waste, which mainly focuses on end-of-life/recovery. This includes ban on landfilling for household waste, extended producer responsibility (EPR) for beverage packaging and batteries and recovery of several other types of materials (e.g. paper and cardboard, metal and steel crap, biogenic waste). However, even if all waste could be recycled, this would only cover one fifth of the current material demand. This highlights the need for better framework conditions and more R strategies needed.

Existing complementing measures include industry agreements, funding programs, public procurement, educational projects, sustainable development strategy 2030 and analyses and reports mandated by the Government and Parliament. Regarding the estimated impact savings of selected CE measures, highest impact would be in the areas of food waste (3.4 million tonnes CO2-eq/year), steel and concrete (1.8 million tonnes CO2-eq/year), plastic waste (1.3 million tonnes CO2-eq/year), and biogas (1.1 million tonnes CO2-eq/year).

Schematic illustration of the circular economy (BAFU, 2019).

The ongoing Parliamentary Initiative to strengthen the CE in Switzerland has focused on several elements including: anchoring resource conservation and the circular economy; strengthening the preparation for reuse; integration of online trade in EPR financing; possible measures for ecodesign of products and packaging; circular economy in the construction sector; exemplary role of the federal government and public procurement. Building materials account for around 10% of Switzerland’s greenhouse gas footprint, and the circular economy provides high potential to construct buildings with fewer embedded emissions.

Austrian circular economy strategy and implementation activities Brigitte Karigl, Austrian Environment Agency

The strategic goals of the Austrian Circular Economy Strategy are: conserving resources, zero waste, climate protection and zero pollution. The operational goals include: reduction of resource consumption (1. Material footprint reduced to 7 tonnes per capita and year by 2050, 2. Domestic Material Consumption (DMC) reduced to 14 tonnes per capita and year by 2030); increasing domestic resource productivity by 50% by 2030, compared to 2015; increasing the circularity rate to 18% by 2030; reduction of the material consumption in private households by 10% by 2030, compared to 2020.

Different action areas have been identified to push forward the transition to a circular economy: i) legislation and regulation, ii) market incentives, iii) financing and funding, iv) research, technology development and innovation, v) digitalisation, vi) information, knowledge and cooperation. Other focus areas include green chemistry and the update of the waste prevention programme (2023). Furthermore, in 2023 the Circularity Lab Austria was established with the objectives of promoting circular economy activities in companies, knowledge and know-how transfer, information and communication. Main topics in 2023 were construction and textiles.

German national circular economy strategies Timon Lepold, German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection

In the government coalition agreement in 2021, two overarching goals of circular economy strategies were identified: 1) reduce the consumption of primary raw materials, 2) close material cycles. The circular economy is not an end in itself, but should become a driver for environmental protection and climate action. The target is decoupling GDP and raw material consumption.

Key areas to be tackled by national circular economy strategy (currently under development): plastics, public procurement, circular production, metals, vehicles and batteries, electronics & ICT, buildings, and textiles. In terms of measuring and monitoring, the current lead indicator of Germany’s sustainability strategy and national resource efficiency programme is the total raw material productivity, which indicates the amount of economic activity produced per unit of resource. However, this indicator is inadequate to measure the rate of circularity. Therefore, Germany is currently looking into more appropriate indicators, such as the Circular Material Use Rate.

Circular economy – How good is Switzerland? Xaver Edelmann, SATW and WRF

Dr. Xaver Edelmann, WRF and SATW

The environmental goals of a circular economy include: reduce resource use, reduce emissions, reduce material waste, increased renewable share, increased product durability.

There is a variety of indicators proposed in relation to different circular measures and associated impacts. For instance, for the measure “reduce” the indicators can look at domestic material consumption (DMC) and raw material consumption (RMC). For the measure “extend”, indicators can look at stocking rate, repairability and product lifetime. For the measure “close”, indicators can look at circular material use rate, recycling processing efficiency rate and recovery rate. For the measure “reduction of environmental impact” indicators can look at low carbon, resource conserving and reduction of biodiversity loss.

 

 

The ISO 59020 standard Circular Economy (CE): Measuring and assessing circularity provides guidelines and process on how to measure and assess circularity. Three steps are highlighted: boundary setting, measurement + data acquisition, assessment + reporting. A great variety of different indicators currently exists. Indicators should be easy to apply, internationally accepted and coming out of a cooperation between businesses and regulators. Credibility of the indicators is of paramount importance in order to avoid the danger of greenwashing. For this purpose, sufficiency goals are needed in addition to ensure that the circular economy actually contributes to a reduction of environmental impact and resource use.

Key findings and recommendations for a circular future

1. Improve the understanding of circularity

Despite the growing acceptance of circular principles, there is a lack of common understanding of what a circular economy is. It is important to formulate and adopt simple, clear and credible indicators to facilitate communication with businesses and societies.

2. Integrate national environmental targets into sector-specific measures

National environmental targets should be integrated into recommendations and measures for specific sectors such as the built environment. Environmental targets should act as an overarching framework, within which specific sectors contribute to advance on specific impact areas.

3. Promote a coordinated international approach

A coordinated approach at international level is needed to take account of current trade relations and the dynamics of value chains. Research and co-operation on international trade aspects of the transition to a circular economy should be promoted.

4. Complement circularity with sufficiency

Circularity should be seen as a tool for achieving sustainable resource utilisation, rather than as a goal on its own. Coupling circularity with sufficiency may ensure that the transition to a circular economy leads to an absolute reduction in resource consumption. Repair, remanufacturing and life extension measures can play an important role in reducing consumption.

5. Circularity can be good for business and climate

Many businesses see and leverage the connection between circular economy and climate action. When there is fair competition and clear rules, industry actors believe the circular economy can be aligned with international competitiveness. For this purpose, it’s important to highlight and promote good practices and agree on a set of indicators to measure the environmental and economic benefits of circularity.

6. Prioritise gradual but immediate improvements

Currently, time horizons of environmental policies are often far in the future, while improvements are urgently needed. It's important to start with those measures where we can get the highest gains in environmental performance at the lower cost. Currently, many measures only work thanks to subsidies and their impact is uncertain.

Session speakers

About SATW

The Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences SATW is the most important expert network in the field of technical sciences in Switzerland and is in contact with the highest Swiss bodies for science, politics and industry. The network consists of elected individual members, member companies and experts. On behalf of the federal government, the SATW identifies industrially relevant technological developments and informs politics and society about their significance and consequences. As a unique specialist organization with a high level of credibility, it provides independent, objective and holistic information about technology – as a basis for forming well-founded opinions. The SATW also promotes interest and understanding of technology among the population, especially among young people. It is politically independent and non-commercial.

Emanuele Di Francesco

World Resources Forum

Rebecca Suhner

World Resources Forum

Xaver Edelmann

World Resources Forum, SATW

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