Text written by Simon Wilson, Green Alliance senior representative in Brussels, coordinator of ACES

It is now just over a year since the European Commission published its Circular Economy Action Plan, with the bold aim of abandoning the old make-use-dispose economy in favour of ‘closing the loop’ and keeping resources in circulation.  To mark this milestone, the Commission has just published its first annual report, reviewing its progress in implementing the plan.

Transitioning to a circular economy implies a fundamental shift in our economies and societies. It’s clear that we can’t achieve it in one year, nor can it be done only by policy makers, whether in the European Union or a post-Brexit UK. The circular economy must be driven by economic reality, but policy makers can encourage this by ensuring there is economic value in preserving and reusing resources. So how well is Europe doing in making this transition a reality?

The ACES coalition – a group of think tanks and business organisations from across Europe, including UnternehmensGrün – has today published its own report card, reviewing the Commission’s progress in key sectors. Our verdict is mixed, but there are certainly reasons to feel encouraged, even if more remains to be done. Here are some of the highlights:

Good progress
Let’s start with some positive signs. Waste targets are needed to drive innovation and reduce the amount of resources lost to landfills or leaked into our oceans. The European Parliament this week voted on the draft waste directives, and has sent a strong signal that it wants more ambitious targets for recycling, and clearer end of waste rules that would promote circularity. Now it’s up to member states to match this ambition.

A key aspect of circularity is reusing resources, rather than depleting virgin materials. A strong market for secondary materials is needed. The Commission has started by proposing a regulation on fertilisers that would encourage the use of organic fertiliser. We hope to see standards established for reusing other materials in the coming year so that manufacturers can buy secondary materials with confidence.

Could do better
One year into the Circular Economy Action Plan, some areas are still waiting for action. The publication of a new ecodesign working plan is good news since, for the first time, products will be examined to see how they can be better designed to reduce waste. But we can only give the Commission limited credit because the new working plan was way overdue and, when it was published, the list of products to be addressed was very short. Green Alliance looked at this issue recently, and suggested that everyday products like smart phones and washing machines could be designed to make them more durable, repairable and upgradeable. We hope the Commission’s limited steps forward are the start of a big ecodesign programme that will lead to a better deal for consumers across Europe.

Green public procurement also gets a mixed evaluation. The Commission is moving ahead with new criteria to encourage public authorities across Europe to ‘buy circular’, and incorporate material efficiency into their purchasing decisions. That’s good, but real incentives to encourage the uptake of such good practices are lacking. Without incentives, and training for procurers, the Commission’s good words won’t have an effect.

One material that epitomises the throwaway society is plastic. Research on Plastics, marine litter, and the circular economy  by ACES member IEEP, shows the harm that plastic waste is causing, particularly to the marine environment. The Commission has promised a plastics strategy, but although it has now published a roadmap that gives some context for the problem, there is still no indication of what policy options may be on the table. Political delay seems to be putting the chances of stronger action at risk, even though it is widely agreed that this is a crucial area for the circular economy.

Serious concerns
There are some sectors where we are seriously concerned that no progress is being made and opportunities are being missed. The role of the circular economy to create employment is one such area. Employment analysis by Green Alliance shows that the circular economy has huge potential to reduce unemployment and create stable, high quality jobs. Remanufacturing, the bio-economy, repair, recycling and servitisation (moving from products to services) can all drive good quality job creation. But the EU has not integrated circular economy policy within its European Semester economic and employment strategy, which is a major omission.  This year’s Green Week in May will focus on ‘Green jobs for a greener future’, so we hope to see more attention on jobs and the circular economy this year.

We need better products from producers to make the circular economy a reality but, as consumers, we lack the information necessary to make informed choices about products. Better product labelling would tell us which products are designed to last, to be reused, repaired, remanufactured and recycled, or whether they contain recycled materials. But, although we are used to seeing energy efficiency labels, there is no equivalent resource efficiency labelling scheme to reward innovative and efficient manufacturers over those who sell shoddy goods that can’t be fixed, upgraded or recycled.

After only one year, it’s not a surprise that there is still a list of areas where more action is needed. The Commission needs to press ahead, so that we can all realise the economic, social and environmental benefits of the circular economy.