With an annual expenditure accounting for around 14% (or EUR 2 trillion) of the EU's overall GDP, governments are Europe's biggest consumers. Their expenditure stems mainly from public tenders to purchase the works, services and supplies they need from companies.

Considerable work has been done in the EU over the past few years to encourage public authorities to embrace more sustainable consumption patterns, looking beyond short-term needs to the longer-term impacts of each purchase.

The European Commission has since 2017 issued guidance in the form of Green Public Procurement criteria, phasing in circular economy elements to close energy and material loops in supply chains, while minimising negative environmental impacts and waste creation.

However, these measures have had a limited impact because compliance is voluntary. The EESC believes it is time to introduce mandatory minimum Green Public Procurement criteria and to give the circular economy a strong boost through procurement directives and sector-specific legislation.

Circular public procurement will allow administrations to move beyond the lowest price criterion at the time of purchase.

"Procurement is often controversial because the selection criteria for projects are all too often very one-sided, with no consideration for lifecycle impact or what a project achieves", says Mr Wyckmans. "The idea that the lowest price should be the only allocation criterion should be abandoned in favour of 'value for money', which encompasses innovation, quality of products and services, sustainability, greening and social impact."

The European Commission has already developed a number of life-cycle costing (LCC) templates which are freely available for procurers to check against products and services. These tools allow public authorities to consider the lifecycle costs of the product, work or service, from purchase through operation and maintenance to end-of-life. These should now be upgraded, says the EESC, to include the cost of carbon.

The EESC also believe it is vital to ensure that SMEs have a chance to bid for circular public contracts and get the help they need. They offer enormous potential but are in danger of being sidelined owing to the complexity of the procedure. Only if the necessary support is provided can they contribute to local and human-oriented tenders. (dm)