Little progress made toward achieving a fully circular economy by 2050

Little progress has been made in recent years toward achieving a fully circular economy by 2050 and halving abiotic resource use (abiotic means non-living and is used to refer to the part of habitat or ecosystems that is not living) by 2030. The use of most resources did not decrease. Only fossil fuel use decreased, but this decrease was incidental due to the corona-lockdown.

Effective circular policies contribute to greater security of supply by recovering strategic raw materials from the existing stock of products and buildings (the urban mine) and keeping them available for future use. This rarely succeeds now.

Policy per product group

To achieve the Cabinet’s goals, more mandatory policy is needed. It is also crucial that products be designed already in the design phase so that high-quality recycling, longer-term use, and less use of new raw materials are possible. The Dutch government’s choice of a policy per product group is a step in the right direction. This is the conclusion of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) in the biennial Integral Circular Economy Report (ICER).

From low-value to high-value recycling

A circular economy aims at substantially less and radically more efficient use of raw materials. Product design is key in achieving this: it determines the material choice, lifespan, and reusability. Today, too often, valuable materials still end up in the incinerator, partly due to poor product design. For example, although the Netherlands leads Europe in recycling (78% of waste is recycled), this consists largely of low-grade recycling.

A higher value use of secondary materials requires improvements in product design, proper separate collection, opportunities for high-value application, and steering for that. Currently, some parts of the products are designed, so that recycling for application as a secondary material is difficult, or it takes a lot of energy to recover some materials.

Complex products with many different materials and a relatively high market value, such as printers, need a very different circular design approach than single-use packaging. A company’s power in the value network also has an influence. For example, retailers and SMEs often have limited scope for action, which does not make implementing circular changes easy. Also, a different design requires different collaboration in the chain, for example, supplying (secondary) materials and parts, alternatives, and (return) logistics. In addition, how users deal with circular products in everyday life plays a role. They are responsible for their products’ proper use, maintenance, disposal, and return. The product design must therefore be aligned with a circularity strategy that fits the complexity and high value of the product, the relative power of entrepreneurs in the value chain, and the way users interact with the products during and after the use phase. This requires a long-term vision, a lot of knowledge among companies and other organizations, and large-scale knowledge dissemination.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

It is important to focus firmly on lifetime extension to reduce the environmental impact of electrical appliances such as laptops and phones. The current laws and regulations surrounding recycling worked out in the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), work against life extension. It is not desirable for the sector responsible for meeting the collection target to focus on life extension, as this would allow fewer volumes to “count” toward collection. The already difficult-to-achieve target would thus only be made more difficult to achieve. Also, products that can be refurbished are bought up by merchants for recycling, as this brings a better price. PBL advises revising the current EPR targets that focus only on offering appliances to recycling facilities into circular targets. This also implies targets on life extension, reuse, and refurbishment and ambitious targets on recovery and high-value reuse of materials in similar products.

Urban planning

The Netherlands has a limited territory. Within this territory, space must be found for circular activity. Research shows that less primary production through, for example, the sharing of products and machinery can lead to decreasing use of space for industry and logistics. In contrast, recycling will increase demand for locations with a high environmental category and good accessibility. These are preferably easily accessible locations, and for large volumes, multimodal accessibility – by road, rail, and water – is also important. New demands are also arising for logistics, storage, and transshipment of materials and products for reuse, repair, parts, and revision. In addition, spatial planning determines the possibility of the transition. Think of the inability to mix housing and recycling activities that cause a lot of nuisance. Using scenarios, PBL explores the relationships between the circular economy and space in the Netherlands.

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