Waning resources on the one side and growing mountains of waste on the other side are calling for a rethink of the way we live today, and, in particular the way how we manufacture, use, and deposit our products. We need to switch from a linear "extract-transform-use-throw-away" economy to a circular economy, i.e. an industrial economy which not only avoids waste and pollution but reuses, repairs, remanufactures and recycles. In its opinion on the "Circular Economy Package" adopted at its plenary session on 27 April, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the European Commission's Circular Economy package as a step in the right direction. A critical question still remains: Will this be enough to shift European economies to a truly circular model which decouples economic prosperity from the use of natural resources and multiplies the economic and social benefits?
Liability and reliability
"The procedure of changing linear economies into circular ones is not a walkover, but needs ownership at all levels and sectors", outlined Cillian Lohan, Rapporteur of the opinion.
Producers should be encouraged to develop business models where leasing and selling goods as services become a standard practice, and where all costs are internalised. The EESC also believes that Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes should be mandatory for adoption by Member States. Moreover, it needs clarification about the roles and liabilities of the various stakeholders along the line. Manufacturers should be obliged to communicate the expected lifetime of their products.
Green and affordable for all
The foreseen revision of the Eco-design Directive must take the full life cycle of the product into account including durability, reparability, availability/affordability of spare parts, and unconditional disclosure of repair and service information by manufacturers. The EESC also wants a total ban on products with built-in defects designed to end the product's life.
Behaviour change can be best achieved through clear price signals. The EESC proposes to develop support mechanism that allow poorer people access to higher quality and initially higher cost goods and services. These may include a government-backed lending scheme, or a manufacturer-backed financing scheme exclusively applied with lower rates to products with a certain minimum life expectancy. But also accurate labelling will help the consumers choose the most sustainable instead of the cheapest-priced product.
Education and social protection
Every transition brings winners and losers. For the EESC it is important that transition losers are identified at an early stage and appropriate social protection measures can be seized. This includes education and training including the support for regaining a foothold in another branch. Raising awareness and educating people is a long term endeavour which has to be targeted at the whole population - companies, SMEs, investors and financiers. Education must start in particular in kindergartens and schools; then it will help to establish a new generation of responsible consumers be one of the drivers of wholesale behaviour change..
"The circular economy has to be comprehensive and across sectors", said Mr. Lohan. "Therefore the EESC repeats its offer to actively promote networks of civil society actors advocating the transition to a circular economy model and explore possibilities for a European Forum for a Circular Economy. Such a platform would provide opportunities for connecting ideas, and exchanging and raising awareness around best practices", said Mr. Lohan.