Circular Economy Stakeholder Forum: Key Take-Aways

14.3.2017

I attended the Circular Economy Stakeholder Forum in Brussels last week organised by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee. Two days full of presentations, discussions, exchanging views with new people, and the launch of the Stakeholder Forum, which also was the focus of the last day’s workshop.
Now that I’m digesting those two days, below are some thoughts that I’d like to share with you.

1. Governance is the biggest challenge
These are the words by the EC’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans in his opening remarks. I totally agree with him. Over time, we’ve created a linear system with market capitalism rules, which mostly value short-term profit maximisation. Changing the course of the system is challenging; one could say that endeavour in our hands is far from easy.

Governance wise: everybody should be looking in the same direction and taking actions that lead us to a more or less shared vision, based on – not in linear thinking but – a circular approach. There should be structures in place at each level incentivising all the relevant players, so that the circular way of operating is far more compelling than the current way. And the fact that the definition of a circular economy still needs clarifying let alone more awareness raising to understand that “efficient recycling” does not equal ‘a circular economy’, doesn’t make the governance building any easier.

2. Is a circular economy always sustainable?
This was one of the topics that came up during the conference a number of times. Although circularity is the key, it should not at any point externalise environmental impact. This is something that needs to be tied in with circular thinking and development work far more. A circular economy is not only about refuse, reduce, reuse, remanufacturing or recycling of materials while maximising value. Biodiversity, water usage, emissions, hazardous chemicals, renewable energy, just to mention but a few, are the things that need to be factored in when developing circular actions and operations.

We need to get more nuanced about a circular economy, explore each sector carefully and ambitiously to understand what the key environmental issues are and how they can be resolved. Regarding the above-mentioned hazardous chemicals, there’s a very illustrative case study ‘Keeping it clean: Protecting the Circular Economy from Hazardous Substances’ published by the European Environmental Bureau a few weeks ago. Following the reuse loop of two products – mattress and lcd tv – it shows how information on hazardous substances does not follow the reuse loop of the products, thus highlighting the aspects lacking in the current regulatory framework.

However, it is not just the environmental sustainability we need to pay attention to. While changing the course of the system, there’s never been a better moment to rethink capitalism: how can we develop a circular system that creates more well-being, truly increases equal opportunities and creates prosperity – not just in monetary terms? In our own work, we highlight the importance of creating shared value across the circular value network.

One of our international colleagues, Alexandre Lemille, has also written some excellent articles about designing out poverty through the circular economy approach as well as prioritising a human sphere and placing it in between the biological and technical cycles.

3. The barrier is the will
Some of the sessions I attended included plastics strategy, which is indeed a complex but also an intriguing topic, as there is a great deal demand for redesign in order to make plastics more circular (I took quite a few photos of the presentations, which you can find on our facebook page ).
One of the speakers made a comparison between paper and plastics showing how growth in the paper sector has taken place through increased circularity (around 70%) whereas growth in plastics has been linear with only less than 10% of circularity.

A number of requests on plastics were presented, such as higher and transparent recycling targets, better enforcement of existing regulation, increased collaboration along the value chain and better control of waste streams. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around 30% of plastics should and could be redesigned before they can be reused or recycled. To me ‘redesign’ means that there is always a solution to be found if one is willing to work on the issue.

A similar message was conveyd by Mr. Rik Plomp of PGGM (Dutch cooperative and pension fund service provider) for funders and investors. He emphasised that there is a need to fund (and enable) the change instead of a company. He also asserted that “the current financial instruments are not the barrier, the barrier is the will”. This goes back to my first point about governance being the biggest challenge on the road towards a circular economy.
Clearly Captain Jack Sparrow managed to nail it down: “The problem is not the problem – the problem is your attitude about the problem.”

Anne Raudaskoski
The writer is a Co-founder of Ethica and she thinks that the future will be circular, hence it is better to stay in the loop.