Making the EU Go Round with Circularity

29 Jul 2021 – Written by Andrea Rocio Limon

The European Union has gradually implemented initiatives targeting the reduction of single-use plastic (SUP) consumption, municipal waste recycling targets and pollution production by controlling its emissions via the Emissions Trading System (ETS). In line with the European Commission’s agenda for a cleaner and more competitive Europe, Parliament officials announced the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) in March 2020. The European Green Deal outlined the ways in which this could lead to a sustainable economy by investing in green and digital transitions. To achieve these ambitious goals set by the EC and propelled by the damage done to the European economy by the Covid-19 pandemic, in Europe’s Next Generation EU recovery fund the emphasis is placed upon the much needed green transformation where the environment is at the forefront.

The three main principles of a circular economy are to: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural resources. Currently, the European economy is seeking to make the transformation from the traditional linear economy in which natural resources are consumed without a thought for their long-term effects. The CEAP will reduce pressure on natural resources and allow for sustainable growth and jobs. This is a step in fulfilling the EU’s 2050 goal of halting biodiversity loss and climate neutrality target. The Action Plan consists of 35 initiatives with a detailed proposed timeline for EU Member States. This will allow for a gradual adaptation of the plan so that citizens and businesses do not feel unable to, or overwhelmed by, the new restrictions. These initiatives cover industries where circularity is high such as: the electronics and information and communications technology (ICT), batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings, food, water and nutrients. The main objectives of the CEAP is to make sustainable products the norm in the EU, empower consumers and buyers to repair their goods, ensure less waste, and become the leading global pioneer on circular economy.

Currently, there are three ways SUPs are recycled in Europe: Mechanical, where plastics are turned into secondary materials, but remain unchanged on a molecular level; Chemical, a process that changes the polymers in the plastics to create ‘new’ materials; and Energy Recovery, where plastics are burned to generate electricity. Energy Recovery is an unfavourable process because of how much pollution and waste is created for the energy gained. To avoid this, the EU proposes in the CEAP to incentivise circular business models and production processes where the feedback loops allow products to be reused, refurbished and remanufactured. In a circular economy, ‘recyclables’ are made to last several lifetimes through maintenance, repair, redistribution, refurbishment and/or re-manufacture loops reducing waste amounts and their need to be recycled. By funding R&D initiatives, researchers and scientists can find the alternatives to primary raw materials and promote the use of recycled materials; by developing products that are made to last but are easier to repair and recycle. This allows for local circular economies to collaborate where waste from one company becomes the raw material for another. On a more technical and governmental level there is a need for the modernisation and upgrade of existing recycling and waste-treatment infrastructure. An emphasis must be placed on identifying and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from products, waste and secondary raw materials.

The circular economy enables EU citizens to participate in, and benefit from, positive aspects from tackling the environmental problems by changing consumption and production and favouring the sustainable counterpart. It has the potential of creating 1 million new jobs across all skill levels. It encourages circular supply chains and sustains local jobs with the overall target of keeping value in the EU economy. EU investment must be made in smart mobility through public transportation and vehicle sharing services, as well as in the introduction of tools that support sustainable consumption and the green transition through the financing of green skills training and education for EU citizens. This is already in action too, such as in Denmark’s Kalundborg Symbiosis. It is the world’s first partnership of 12 public and private companies working together with a circular approach to production: where the waste and residue of one company becomes a resource at another, which supports the green transformation and favours the environment and economy. Through the distribution of byproduct material, the companies use the full lifecycle of natural resources and recover on expenses otherwise used for material acquisition.

The growing ecological footprint and the way humans consume materials is unsustainable. However, the EU fails to address its main challenges of the social inequalities and development gaps present within its borders. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, multiple EU Member States have faced varying degrees of the ongoing health, financial, economic, and now environmental crises. Most recently the decision to enforce various initiatives simultaneously left European citizens and businesses facing multiple challenges to continue operating despite closed neighbouring borders, reductions in financial incomes and a drastic change in the way people consume. The SUP directive came into effect on 03 July 2021 and saw multiple EU Member States fail to comply or deliver a ‘lenient’ version of the directive. Some states decided to continue delaying measures due to the concern and opposition by businesses and industries greatly impacted by the health pandemic.

Source: EEA, 2019

This focus on the CEAP poses the question: is a world without waste possible? Currently the EU’s target goal is to recycle 65% of waste where it is later repurposed in the production of new items. First and foremost is the need for a suitable and efficient recycling waste system and infrastructure. There are still states within the European Union lacking these systems which is hindering their success in reaching the EU target goals. In 2019, the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS) found that Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia and Slovenia lacked a recycling infrastructure resulting in inadequate collection strategies and high contamination levels of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. This is in part due to the lack of a successful system in place to reach target goals and the need to inform citizens on proper recycling methods to avoid contamination and larger reception of recyclable materials. Those states already struggling to reach the 2020 and 2025 target goals will continue to lag further behind their fellow Member States, reducing the overall average for the EU. Another key area is citizens’ reliance on single-use plastic for its convenience and, concurrently, businesses are struggling to switch over to the more expensive biodegradable options. In order for EU Member States to comply and contribute to the joint EU agenda, a considerable amount of financial resources must be allocated to the construction of infrastructure and marketing campaigns. While the SUP industry accounts for 78% of waste, 22% of waste comes from agriculture, construction, electronic equipment and automotive, which do not have similar recycling targets. This allows for a gap to form and the EU to limit themselves on how they can achieve their 2030 target goals for recycling, emissions, and SUP usage. If the European Union can reduce its waste consumption and increase its recycling capabilities, it will be well on its way to fulfilling the gradual phases in place to achieve the 2030 and 2050 goals. The CEAP would ensure a sustainable future for Europe and allow for further research, development and innovation on the issues and concerns currently affecting Europe’s ability to recycle and recover from the economic crisis.

IDRN does not take an institutional position and we encourage a diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to maximise the public good.

Recommended citation:

Limon, A. R. (2021) Making the EU Go Round with Circularity, IDRN, 29 July. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].