The European Parliament’s bold plan on the circular economy

We must give back to nature more than we extract. The European Union’s circular economy plan sets the guidelines to embrace this paradigm shift.

Imagine a straight line that starts in a cotton field, moves through a t-shirt factory, passes through a shop window and ends up in your wardrobe. After a couple of years, wear and tear and too many wash cycles tear a hole or two in the fabric, and the t-shirt ends up in the bin. The straight line stops. Now imagine that, instead of throwing the t-shirt away, you use your sewing kit to transform it into a headband or another useful item, or take it back to the shop. Or, perhaps, that the t-shirt never tore, looking as good as new after all that time because of its high quality. In the latter case, the straight line has curved, becoming a circle. This is at the heart of what the circular economy means. It is a paradigm shift that our planet desperately needs and that the European Union has wholeheartedly decided to pursue.

The Circular Economy Action Plan goes ahead

574 in favour, 22 against, 99 abstentions: this was the result of the vote on the Circular Economy Action Plan first presented in March 2020 during the European Parliament’s February 2021 plenary session. The document, a pillar of the European Green Deal, will now be scrutinised by the European Council before passing on to the Commission, whose role is to approve the measures contained within it following a five-year long timetable. “There is no more time for hesitation,” European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said at the plenary debate. “The action plan underlines the need to reduce our consumption footprint, to bring it back within planetary boundaries, and to switch to an economic model that gives back to the planet more than it takes away”.

Globally, extracting and processing natural resources – Sinkevičius noted – is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress. Given that the consumption of biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals is set to double over the next forty years, and yearly waste production is heading for a 70 per cent increase by 2050, decoupling economic growth from resource use can no longer be avoided.

The EU Parliament raises the bar

In approving the action plan, the European Parliament also decided to raise the bar. Even though the Commission is responsible for taking legislative initiative, the Parliament has the power to change a document’s text during the approval process.

It deliberated that vague promises about reducing the use of virgin raw materials and related environmental impacts aren’t good enough: binding and science-based goals, to be achieved by 2030, are required. These set out how to manage waste, on the one hand, but also how to avoid resources from becoming waste in the first place. This issue is very dear to Simona Bonafé, an MEP belonging to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats: “If circularity means giving products as long a life as possible, preventing waste production really is the litmus test for an effective circular economy system”.

Furthermore, the European Parliament has asked every member state to introduce minimum binding objectives on green procurement, to ensure that public bodies acquire goods and services with a reduced environmental impact. “Otherwise, we’re asking countries to recycle but nothing really gets moving because there’s no market for secondary raw materials,” Bonafé explains.

There are seven value chains on which institutional efforts will focus. Last December, the Commission took steps to update legislation on batteries and vehicles, an increasingly urgent issue after the landmark of one million electric or hybrid vehicles sold was reached last year, despite the inevitable dip caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Packaging and plastics – on which the EU has already made some bold decisions, including banning certain single-use products – are also included. The textiles sector too needs to change, and fast: while lockdowns across Europe led to a 22 to 35 per cent decrease in sales compared to 2019 (according to McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2021 report), on average we each consume 26 kilograms of textiles per year and throw 11 of these into the trash. In addition, regulations combating the planned obsolescence of electronics and ICT products are sorely needed; construction and buildings are protagonists of the “renovation wave” announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; and, finally, food, water and nutrients are still characterised by unacceptably high levels of waste, especially at a domestic level, that require intervention.

fast fashion
The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global pollution © China Photos/Getty Images

Sustainability starts with design

European institutions have actually been involved in the circular economy for a long time. In 2018, rules came into force setting important principles regarding products’ end-of-life, such as recycling targets for packaging and municipal waste, and limits to the percentage of waste that can be sent to landfill (by 2035, this must be lower than 10 per cent). Italy recorded the highest performance increase in response to these new rules, jumping ahead to fourth place in terms of recycling and reusing materials, behind the Netherlands, France and Belgium.

The new action plan, however, represents a breakthrough because it goes beyond tackling just waste, adopting a more holistic approach. European People’s Party MEP Aldo Patriciello says he is satisfied with the document that was approved by the Parliament, “aware that only a global mindset, able to ensure that circularity and sustainability principles are applied in all phases of the value chain, can transform our economy into a truly circular one”. Patriciello, like Bonafé, is part of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).

If we were to focus exclusively on products’ end-of-life, we would lose sight of a crucial fact: 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined by its design. Up to now, eco-design criteria have been embraced only for energy-related products, but “we asked the Commission to extend the directive’s scope of action to other sectors as well,” Patriciello explains. Citizens, on their part, deserve to be provided with everything they need to make informed choices when purchasing any product. “In addition to the Ecolabel, we asked that steps be taken towards creating green labels based to products’ environmental impact,” states Bonafé. Soon consumers browsing an electronics store will be able to choose items not only based on price and functionality, but also on goods’ estimated lifespan and possibility of repair.

Vaia: giving new life to a forest in the Dolomites

“The circular economy is a simple thing. It means respecting raw materials, respecting what we have around us. It means giving value to people’s work and the objects we buy. It means applying our brains to using what we have more intelligently”.

These are the words of Federico Stefani, a young Italian entrepreneur from Valsugana, in the Dolomites. When, in Autumn 2018, the Vaia storm tore down thousands of hectares of the region’s pristine alpine forests, Federico got to work to create something so that nature’s suffering wouldn’t be in vain. Something new, iconic and meaningful. Together with Paolo and Giuseppe, Federico created Vaia, a startup that makes smartphone speakers using wood from the trees felled by the storm. Each speaker is one-of-a-kind because the veins in the wood – which the manufacturers use to create the object’s signature fissure – are unique. Furthermore, the company has committed to planting a tree for every item sold.

2020 was a rewarding year for the project. Over 25,000 Vaia Cubes made their way out of the woodworking shop and across the world, to the US, China and South America. They were particularly successful among students learning remotely. Trade fairs and large events were cancelled due to the pandemic and replaced by alternative initiatives, widely appreciated nonetheless. 4,000 customers chose to buy a Vaia Cube in combination with a ticket to the exhibition of Arte Sella, an open-air gallery in Borgo Valsugana, valid throughout all of 2021. On 25th October, Vaia organised its first public planting event – “people came from as far as Perugia and Pordenone to plant their tree in Trentino”, Federico tells us – and on 8th November, the company celebrated its birthday with a day of digital conferences on sustainability.

Of course, Federico notes, daily life in a startup isn’t always fun and games. Especially when you’re selling a handmade product, which is the polar opposite to mass-produced items, with next-day delivery. But Vaia marches on, already planning new products and to expand into new parts of Italy. “We’re proud to be a startup because we want our company to create value for the local area, without depriving it of resources, in coordination with the local community,” Federico concludes.

Giuseppe, Federico and Paolo, creators of Vaia

A circular rebirth following the pandemic

Vaia is one of Italy’s excellencies, something the country can be proud of. And it’s not the only one, as the Atlas featuring 100 of them shows. “We have some virtuous cases, some cycles that work very well. But now we have to work for these to become systemic,” says Bonafé.

To this end, the delicate time we’re living through is an unmissable opportunity, as we slowly rise out of the crisis caused by the pandemic. The 750-billion-euro Next Generation EU fund was created for this purpose. Its main instrument, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, establishes that 37 per cent of loans and funding must be in pursuit of the European Green Deal, the plan to reach carbon neutrality that, in large part, hinges on the circular economy. “There was a moment when it looked like the pandemic-caused crisis might erase all our work, but the disaster was avoided,” comments Bonafé. “It represents an enormous success and change of perspective”.

Europe has sent out a signal that must be picked up on without hesitation. “National governments are called upon to introduce legislative measures that follow the environmental direction set by the EU, and significant resources to follow this path will be put at their disposal,” says Patriciello. “In Italy’s case, almost 69 billion euros will go towards funding activities connected to the green revolution”. The funding is there, member states now face the task of using it in the most virtuous and effective way possible. Institutions will be vigilant, Bonafé assures. “We asked the Commission to be very strict about conditions being respected, even more so than macroeconomic ones. 37 per cent of funding has to go to initiatives that fight climate change and we want to see these projects come to life”.

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