Circular Economy Graphic: Cambridge Judge Business School

Circular Economy in Europe – little success so far

February 25th, 2019

The circular economy is a revolutionary idea of transforming how we use and value resources. It is a chance to make the idea of ‘waste’ something for the history books – zero waste by using resources effectively, environmentally and intelligently. The ‘make, use, dispose’ linear economy has no future in a world of finite resource.

This means the circular economy is not just an option, it is a necessity. Otherwise, we will choke the planet with waste to the point of our own extinction. To our own detriment, the EU is just fancying with the idea and enjoying the soundbite, rather than implementing this radical way of reorganising society.

The new Single Use Plastics Directive was a test for the EU to show its true colours on the circular economy in practice. The Commission brought forward a proposal to reduce the impact of plastic on the environment, including some elements on eco-design – notably the tethered caps on plastic beverage bottles.

While reciting the vague references to the circular economy principles in the proposal, we cannot say that it was really incorporated in the substance of the provisions. There are major challenges in smoothing out the wrinkles in the interface of chemical, product and waste legislation – and this directive could have been the moment to show this interplay and make clear that the plastics economy must be closed loop.

The reason the circular economy has trouble catching on in Brussels is because it is an anti-capitalist idea. If it were recognised for what it is, the circular economy itself would be binned and landfilled. But it’s true – the idea of a circular economy undermines the necessity to constantly extract resources from our planet, which is a threat to industries and big corporations that capitalise from the constant need to consume new things.

The circular economy is a fight against disposability, but mass disposability is a profitable game. If we do not throw things out then we are not going to run to the shop to buy new replacements. The circular economy is massive market interference – telling companies how to design their products and making the private sector responsible throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Circular economy means less energy, less oil, less intermediaries.  So if the circular economy relies on a post-growth economy, it can only go against the grain of the EU’s unlimited-growth-style capitalism.

MEPs Lynn Boylan (l) and Mairead McGuinness (r) at Brexit and Environment Conference in Dundalk, 2017 Photo: Niall Sargent
MEPs Lynn Boylan and Mairead McGuinness at Brexit and Environment Conference in Dundalk, 2017 Photo: Niall Sargent

This is why the EU, in its current form, cannot fully embrace the concept. The corporate hold on the EU’s institutions is quietly, but firmly, resisting the true meaning of circular economy.

Many corporations will greenwash their way into the conversation, speaking of ‘new business opportunities’ it offers and proposing their circular economy business plans. These attempts to reduce the circular economy to rhetoric are succeeding, while the true revolution within the concept is waning, losing its significance all together.

The Commission could revive the rebellious notion of circular economy by undertaking major reforms. One obstacle to the realisation of a circular economy is the systemic problem of lack of transparency around the EU institutions.

No circular economy can be established unless it is accompanied by radical reforms on the secrecy and opacity of the European Commission, and Council in particular. The reach of the corporate arm into the institutions is derailing any chances of a shift away from the constant-growth mind-set.

The Commission, of course, will not go down this route. Instead, it tokenises the circular economy concept, most recently in its 2050 long-term strategy for greenhouse gas emissions, an essential strategy for decarbonising the EU economy in line with the Paris Agreement.

However, in the strategy, the circular economy is coupled quite awkwardly with “competitive industry” as one of the seven strategic areas on the road to climate neutrality. Moreover, only one of the eight scenarios explored for decarbonisation is based on a ‘highly circular economy’.

Without going any further, we can see the Commission’s commitment, or lack thereof, to the circular economy principles in its hollow words in this strategy. The long-term strategy, like the circular economy itself, ought to be a far-reaching, radically transformative, new road to a greener future. Instead, the Commission will use radical notions as window dressing for the same old business as usual policies.

Looking back at the Single Use Plastics Directive, the Parliament adopted a relatively positive report, upholding the producer responsibility provisions and keeping derogations to a minimum. When the Council, on the other hand, brought forward its general approach, industry was spread all over it – delayed deadlines, loopholes, derogations and clauses to rein in ambition, all Council red lines of course.

The Parliament, as usual, was bullied into conceding on pretty much everything. We have no record of whom the Permanent Representations met with, no publically available documents on amendments submitted by Member States and no vote record to scrutinise.

So as long as the corporate cosiness thrives in the EU, the circular economy cannot find its place. Instead, it will be thrown around jargonistically by the Commission to convince itself that it is on the right path – a lie that goes in circles.

By Lynn Boylan

Lynn is a member of Sinn Fein and has served as an MEP since 2014, with a background in ecology and experience as a community programme coordinator in the environmental sector. This article was originally printed in the Parliament Magazine on 18th February 2019.

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