A conference on Circular Economy that boasts such high-level speakers as Jyrki Katainen (Vice-President and Commissioner for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, European Commission), Sirpa Pietikäinen (Rapporteur for the Circular Economy, MEP) or Eva Kjer Hansen (Minister of Environment and Food, Denmark) raises a lot of expectations. Surely, these people can finally tell us what exactly Europe is going to do to shift its economy from a linear to a circular one. The 2016 European Circular Economy Conference, taking place on 16 February in Brussels with approximately 200 participants and organised by Forum Europe was a day packed with keynote speeches and panels aiming at determining whether ‘the new package is the right fit for Europe’ that promised to give some answers.
Alas, again it seemed that the higher the level of speakers, the more generic the information given – which is probably a universal truth for conferences all around the globe. And so it was no surprise to hear Mr Katainen defend the new package published by the Commission end of 2015 as being “more ambitious” than the previous one, while Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (MEP) reprimanded the Commission for not making more concrete proposals. It was stressed several times that economic structures will only change if it pays off to private businesses, that we need new business models (with no exact description of what these should look like, except for the oldie-but-goldie examples such as car sharing and co.), that consumers need to be educated and change their mind-set around consumption, that we need better recycling infrastructure, and so on. However, when it comes to implementing measures in order to achieve these goals, European officials have not much more to offer than recycling targets or the Eco-design Directive, referring questions to their colleagues in the Member States. As one such representative, the Danish Minister of Food and Agriculture Eva Kjer Hansen called Circular Economy a “no-brainer” – but if it is really that easy, why isn’t it happening faster? As MEP Gerbrandy reminded the audience, the advantages of doing more with less resources have been well known for quite some time (as for example shown in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe from 2011) – but actual action has been lagging behind.
So, nothing new in this regard. The Dutch representative was eager to stress his country’s facilitatory ambitions as the Netherlands will hold the next Presidency of the Council. Discussions about the Circular Economy package will take place end of February and beginning of March in the EP and the Council.
Bio-based economy plays a minor role in the whole Circular Economy discussion. Mr Katainen mentioned bio-based products as one important aspect of the Circular Economy. When asked later by a representative of the industry how replacement of fossil resources by renewables will play a role, his reply touched on several important issues: The use of renewable feedstocks will also reduce the dependency on imported oil (which is one objective of increasing resource efficiency, too), but these feedstocks need to be sustainably sourced to be acceptable to policy makers and the public. Mr Katainen concluded vaguely that Circular Economy will not mean that virgin renewable feedstocks cannot be used at all and that it is not a black-and-white business.
As of now, the concept of Circular Economy is still a slightly blurry mixture of ideas around recycling, longer-lived products, reparability but also around sharing economy and using products instead of owning them. The bio-based industry can contribute to a multitude of these issues with different goals and needs to show this. E.g. through biodegradable products that will return their constituents to the natural cycle or products made from side-streams of other productions. However, it becomes clearer and clearer that bio-based economy and Circular Economy are concepts with different focuses and will never be completely congruent. The players of the bio-based economy should not be shy to openly discuss issues of recyclability, which is often technically feasible, but not possible in the current infrastructure. These are topics that need to get on the table if we want to move forward. And last but not least, the bio-based economy should not forget to highlight that their products offer a lot more advantages than can be accounted for in the framework of Circular Economy, contributing to a vibrant, innovative and green EU.