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In Europe, we live in a linear economy. It’s a traditional model we’re all accustomed to where we take, make and create waste.
Raw materials are collected and transformed into products consumers use, until we eventually discard them, unaware (or perhaps blissfully ignorant) of the damage being done to the environment.
Let’s face it, we’re addicted to novelty, whether it’s clothes, that new bit of tech or an upgraded kitchen appliance, we can’t resist a sale.
An estimated 6.6 million tons of textiles are bought every year in the EU, with 5.8 million tons thrown away over the same period – that’s about 11.3 kilograms per person.
Nothing epitomises our current cycle more than the recent Black Friday sales.
Despite the cost of living crisis, where some people are having to choose between heating and eating, this year’s deals came back stronger than ever. Millions of flash sales saw loud ad campaigns flooding our screens and dominating our high streets. Simply put, overproduction breeds overconsumption.
And what accompanies all those rushed, discounted purchases? Lots and lots of packaging. As the COVID pandemic took hold, online shopping rates surged by 129% week on week in the UK and Europe.
Black Friday highlights more than ever our need to shift to a circular economy, where we think more about what we consume and how we can reuse the materials and products we already have in the system.
The focus should be on value creation, implementing a “reduce, reuse, recycle” waste management system and optimising resources – instead of churning out newer and newer products in yet more packaging.
On a small scale, we see 2022 Earthshot Prize finalist Notpla disrupting the industry by producing an alternative to plastic packaging made out of seaweed. We might not be there yet on a global level but there is more our leaders can do from the top down to help our economy become more circular.
This week we will see the release of the European Commission’s November Circular Economy Package, which should bring about progress in the EU.
It is set to include policies which mandate a minimum amount of recycled material in new packaging, as well as introducing a new “eco-design” criteria to make products more easily recyclable.
The package is also likely to address ‘Green Claims’ put forward by companies, in an effort to tackle greenwashing.
This should involve implementing carbon accounting into the value chain. Currently, there are no clear metrics on how much carbon is used to create a product, and a harmonised framework with clear definitions would support this.
It is vital the European Commission gets this right.
Earlier pilot programmes like the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) put forward a method for modelling the emissions and waste streams associated with a product throughout its life cycle.
But with a lack of clear data, these types of methodologies can be highly problematic. In a worst-case scenario, they can actually put companies off circular business models as they are unintentionally penalised.
This is a critical moment to incorporate greater circularity in our economy, and it can only happen by embedding policies at a systems level.
It’s not just consumers who want to see things change, progressive businesses are also calling for greater ambition around the circular economy.
Research from CLG Europe’s Taskforce recently called for a greater link between stakeholders and legislators when it comes to making decisions, and pushed for demand-side policy on sustainable materials in order to boost business confidence.
The research highlights that building a circular economy must be given the necessary attention and support it requires, so that economic activity and environmental and societal well-being can be successfully integrated. Businesses say a gradual transition is already happening, but more ambitious policy is needed to accelerate this shift.
For the sake of our planet, it is key we embrace the principles of a circular economy.
Our current linear model is not sustainable, and without action, we will not only fail to meet our climate targets – we will run out of resources for the next generation.
Tahmid Chowdhury runs the Taskforce for Climate Neutral and Circular Materials at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
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