Cities and Circular Economy within EU policy-making

By Laura Martelloni and Vasilis Niaros, P2P Lab

The Circular Economy is a relatively recent topic within EU policy-making; yet it is already a well established and framed political and investment priority. Under the pressure of massive urbanization and accelerated globalization, the mainstream make-take-dispose linear economy is increasingly showing its own limits, eroding relentlessly the key resources on which we all depend to live and thrive. In this context, over the past few years, the circular economy has been quickly scaling up political agendas and priorities, positioning itself as a viable, alternative economic model which may also meaningfully contribute to many of the 'wicked' challenges of the new millennium.

At the time of its launch in 2014, during the global financial crisis, Europe's 2020 Strategy envisaged a set of programmatic actions that would contribute to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. In the Strategy's vision, 'growth' is not merely understood in quantitative terms. Rather, it contains substantial qualitative aspects, being based on knowledge and innovation (smart), resource efficiency (sustainable), as well as on social and territorial cohesion (inclusive). Among the seven flagship initiatives of the Strategy, the 'Resource Efficient Europe' already laid down the basis for the circular economy to flourish, as it highlighted the need to shift towards sustainable growth via a ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon economy that decouples growth from the use of resources’ (European Commission 2011). More in particular, resource efficient development is understood as an economy that 'creates more with less, delivering greater value with less input, using resources in a sustainable way and minimising their impacts on the environment' (ibidem).

Few years later, the circular economy started to explicitly inform the European debate. Between 2012 and 2013, the European Resource Efficiency Platform (EREP) issued a Manifesto and policy recommendations to support the transition to a ‘circular, resource-efficient, resilient, as well as socially inclusive and responsible’ (European Commission 2013) economy, as a way to get out of the crisis via a re-industrialization of the European economy. EREP’s recommendations included the promotion of new (service-based) business models, creation of incentives for SMEs, better information on products, creation of shared products, production standards and labellings, awareness-raising initiatives, development of new ‘green’ skills, knowledge and jobs, among others. Also in 2013, the Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) identified a long term vision by 2050 and specified cities as key contexts for implementing sustainable actions rooted in circular economy's principles.

In 2014, the circular economy made a crucial step ahead within EU policy-making. With the Communication 'Towards a Circular Economy: a zero waste programme for Europe', the European Commission highlighted several barriers preventing circular economy from thriving and proposed a number of specific actions. These spanned from financial support to R&I projects, better use of structural funds, further development of the Ecodesign directive, the Green Public Procurement, the Resource Efficiency Scoreboard, the definition of waste targets, and the support to job creation and skills development via enhanced policy coordination. One year later, these actions turned into a comprehensive and concrete Action Plan for the Circular Economy (European Commission 2015), which largely represents the cornerstone of all actions further developed by the Commission and EU institutions in this field. The 2015 Plan provides detailed proposals for the CE, on the basis of supporting studies which suggested that improving resource efficiency along value chains could reduce overall material inputs by 17–24% by 2030, save up to €630 billion per year for European industry and a potential to boost EU GDP by up to 3.3% by creating new markets, products and jobs. In subsequent years, the Plan has been further sided by and enriched with several legislative proposals which altogether comprise the Circular Economy Package.

The Circular Economy Package is a comprehensive and concrete set of 54 measures that aim at closing the loop of product lifecycle. The Package identifies five priority sectors: plastics, food waste, critical raw materials, construction and demolition, biomass & bio-based products. For each of them, specific targets and a monitoring framework on the national and EU level. The Package has a strong focus on innovation and investment, and heavily promotes cooperation between Member States, Regions, municipalities, enterprises, R&I organizations, citizens and all actors that have a stake in the circular economy.

In early 2019, the Commission published a Report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan. The Report provides an overview of the 54 actions and how they have contributed to the shift towards a circular economy. A transition trend is clearly emerging and ongoing, already creating new jobs and business opportunities, opening new markets and investments, as well as increasing recycling and the demand of recycled materials.

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