Raw materials are vital for our economy. Within the EU, as well as in many industrialized regions of the world, there is a strong dependency on imports as many raw materials are scarce or unaccessable. In the face of increasing competition for different land uses and stringent environmental protection regulations, exploration and extraction of raw materials have become more complex.
The availability of natural resources is determined by geological factors and cannot be changed. We as a society have developed three tools – second-order resources – to help us overcome the unequal distribution of natural resources: economy and trade, diplomacy (including warfare), and technology for improved efficiency of use, substitution of critical or scarce raw materials, and recycling. Sociology is perhaps a fourth component to be added to the toolbox, as it impacts the demand for resources by questioning and changing our perception of what we need and consumer behaviour, among other things.
Europe imports three times more raw materials, fuels and goods than it exports (Annex V to the Report of the Ad-hoc Working Group on defining critical raw materials). This has several economic, political and ecological implications.
While there are known losses via air and water, the bulk of these masses remains right here – in goods, buildings, infrastructure, and landfills. For most commodities (except for paper and board) waste generation is by far smaller than consumption, indicating that, even in highly developed economies like the EU, material stocks are still growing at a significant rate and the system itself is not in a steady state. (Fellner et al. 2017)¹ These constantly growing stocks of anthropogenic origin (already approx. 400 tonnes per capita - "Das EU Kreislaufwirtschaftspaket und die Circular Economy Coalition for Europe") are future raw material sources. (Scharff 2016)²
This anthropogenic stock contains mostly minerals, maybe 10 tonnes of steel and about a tonne of plastics, but the stocks are growing. Over time, and after use, they will become waste. At present, we don’t know when, we don’t know the quantities nor the qualities, we don’t know the logistics we need nor the technologies or capacities to deal with them in an ecologically and economically sound manner. And, above all, we do not know the future demand for secondary materials.
CEC4Europe aims to address the following questions about anthropogenic stocks:
- Where exactly are they?
- What is their quality?
- Can we use them as raw materials?
- How can we retrieve these resources?
- Does that even make sense, ecologically and economically?
From Linear to Circular - Why introducing a Circular Economy to Europe?
In the past, economies used a linear model which assumes that resources are permanently available, abundant and cheap to dispose of. However, this does not reflect reality.
In contrast to linear economics, circular economics aim to re-use and recycle already existing materials and products and hence, avoiding waste and pollution. What was once regarded as waste can be turned into a resource. The establishment of a circular use of resources would imply an independence from raw material imports from geopolitically unstable regions and fluctuating market prices, the development of regional value chains, and simultaneously lower environmental effects.
Nevertheless, the circle should be rather considered as a helix as the factor time has to be taken into account. The world is not the same when recyclables re-appear as secondary raw materials. You won’t notice a difference for packaging or FMCGs, but you definitely will when you look at the electronics, car parts in the automotive industry, or construction industry.
The transformation from a linear to a circular thinking can only be the first step. Next, we have to change from static to dynamic thinking and factor in time in our considerations about targets, potentials, and action.
The EU Circular Economy Package
In 2011, the European Commission has adopted a new strategy, which sets out targets to secure and improve the European access to raw materials. This new strategy is based on a 3-pillar approach:
1. Ensuring fair access to raw materials from international markets
2. Fostering a sustainable supply of raw materials from European sources
3. Boosting resource efficiency and promoting recycling
The 2015 EU Circular Economy Package comprises two parts: While the legislative proposals on waste (four proposed directives to revise six waste directives)3 correspond to the first package of 2014 in terms of the topics covered, they have been thoroughly revised and enlarged.
The released proposal (COM/2015/0614) on waste contains quantitative targets for the reduction and recycling of wastes. By the year 2030, for instance, 65% of the municipal waste and 75% of packaging waste generated should be recycled or prepared for reuse, while landfilling of all wastes should be reduced to 10% in each Member State. In addition to that, separately collected wastes are completely banned from landfilling. The European Parliaments ENVI Committee calls for even more stringent targets.
The most important feature of the new CEP is the Action Plan for the Circular Economy, though. Its seven chapters present the Commission’s plans on the life-cycle phases production, consumption and waste management as well as specific projects for the market of secondary raw materials and five selected waste streams4, on innovation and investment, and on monitoring progress towards a circular economy.
The expected benefits of a circular economy include reduced demand for primary raw materials and thus lower expenses for material resources, reduced environmental impacts, including lower energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, lower waste volumes and in particular less landfill space required, a significant reduction of raw material imports, creation of green jobs and a boost for economic growth. Based on these expectations put forward by the European Commission, the proposed transition from the current "linear type" to a circular economy might be considered as a solution for various problem areas. However, to what extent the raised expectations can be met is questionable.