Have you ever wondered why Apple is launching a new iPhone every year even though the technological improvements and new features, like an improved processor speed or slightly improved Face ID, go almost unnoticed by the consumers? And, even worse, have you ever thought about the fact that buying these new iPhones every year is cheaper than keeping your old one and repairing it after some years?
Well of course the companies do it for the sake of money and profit, but the effects of this annual production cycle on our fragile ecological systems are disastrous. All the resources taken and the waste produced are an interference with nature that is irreversible. The overproduction and consumption caused by our current economic system have reached a point where humanity has used all the biological resources that the Earth can regenerate in one year on July 28. That means that for all the other days left this year, we take out a loan from nature we can not repay. The name of this specific day is Earth Overshoot Day, and the date moves forward every year.
So the scientific evidence shows really clear that something needs to change in how we economise. And while it is very nice when individual people try to make an effort to live more sustainably, an issue of that extent requires a global and systematic solution.
What’s a circular economy?
One approach to solve this problem is the Circular Economy. In the current capitalistic economy, we see nature as something we can endlessly take from, something that needs to be conquered and that we can make money from. But of course raw materials are limited and the way we use and waste them is not only inefficient but is also destroying the planet.
To change this, the Circular Economy model rejects the linear take-make-waste economy and wants to adopt a regenerative model instead where almost no resources are wasted. Repair, Re-use and Recycle are the principles of this model. The lifecycle of products is extended to reduce the use of raw materials and the production of waste. But this is not the only principle; the circular economy also involves sharing, leasing and refurbishing.
Take the example of a light bulb. In the current linear economy, a light bulb company takes resources like glass or metal to manufacture its products. The next step is to “make “the product, sell it to the customers who then use it, and put the waste at the dump when it’s burnt out. This process would look completely different in a circular economy. Instead of selling the bulbs, companies would lease them to their customers while still owning them and providing maintenance and replacement when needed. So companies would have more the role of a service prouder than a product seller.
Besides the benefits of being more efficient, this model would also eliminate the planned obsolescence, when a product has been designed to have a limited lifespan already from the beginning to encourage customers to repurchase it, as Apple does, shown in the beginning. Instead, it gives incentives to produce more energy-efficient and long-lasting products, which means a shift towards prioritising quality over quantity. Apart from regenerating natural systems, combating climate change and reducing waste and pollution, this model would also improve the security of raw materials’ supply and save money.
So what does the Eu do to become a circular economy?
In 2015, the European Commission adopted the first circular economy plan. It included 54 legislative and non-legislative actions to help stimulate the transition away from the linear to a circular model. Four years later, in 2019, when they adopted and implemented all 54 measures, the Von der Leyen Commission unveiled its European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
Among other areas like the EU Biodiversity strategy or the European Climate Law, the Circular Economy Action plan is one of the main building blocks. Following this deal, the new circular economy action plan was adopted in March 2020 since the circumstances have changed with the pandemic and growing climate and energy crisis. All the measures introduced under this new plan aim to make sustainable products the norm and focus on sectors where the potential for circularity is high such as electronics, batteries and vehicles, as well as plastics, packaging, textiles and food.
In the following years, the Commission has proposed several rules and regulations, for example, on waste shipments. Again in March, but this time in 2022, they adopted a package of measures proposed in the circular economy action plan including proposals for empowering consumers in the green transition to speed up the transition. An excellent example of one measure that is part of the European Commission’s strategic documents is the so-called “right to repair”, which is a concept that gives consumers more rights to have faulty products repaired. At the same time, it also includes several initiatives to improve product repairability and make the broader economic context more favourable to repair.
So as you might see, the Eu has a lot of complex laws, regulations and proposals that can be a bit confusing at first. But the overall aim is clearly stated and the transition is taking place step by step.
While it might sound like the perfect solution, of course, this model is not without criticism. Among the criticism directed to the single measures and the challenges to implement it, since many places lack proper waste infrastructure and the recycling technology might not be good enough yet, there are also people criticising the effectiveness of decoupling the natural resource use from economic growth.
Their point is that pursuing economic growth, even if it is in a green and sustainable way, still causes too much damage to nature since it is impossible to completely decouple economic growth from the use of resources. Against the long hold belief that more is always better, this theory called degrowth advocates for societies that prioritise ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, overproduction and excess consumption. Because infinite growth in a finite world is impossible, we need to scale down energy and material use throughout the whole economy.
So, the time to act is now and since the climate crisis and ecological destruction are a result of how we economise, we have to change the way we produce and consume. The EU has taken a great step with the transition into the circular economy, trying to tackle unnecessary use and waste of products and reducing environmental destruction. If the overall goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050 is reached or not, depends on the measures that will be implemented during the next years, either by pursuing economic growth or not.