EEB: Disruptive businesses vital for ambitious circular economy

Disruptive new business and consumption models are needed to deliver an ambitious circular economy, and it is only the European Commission that can create the conditions for them, the European Environmental Bureau’s Stéphane Arditi has said. But, he warned, the executive must overcome stiff resistance from industries keen to preserve the status quo.

Stéphane Arditi is policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau. He spoke to James Crisp, EurActiv’s Deputy News Editor. You can listen to the Soundcloud recording below, or read the transcript. In 2014, the European Commission axed the Circular Economy Package of waste, incineration and recycling laws, and promised to replace it with a new “more ambitious” package before the end of 2015.

What do we need to see in the new circular economy package?

The most important thing is to walk the talk. If we’ve got a new circular economy package with a lot of good intentions, but not really a process that will transform it into concrete action, then that will mean one could pretend a higher ambition without in fact identifying what action needs to be taken, in order to make it happen.

Everybody now understands there is one unique area where only Europe has the competency to do something. That is on product design and policy. If you don’t do it, nobody else can do it. And if national authorities try to do it themselves, and do it differently, it will distort the market.

Two issues we have is the still very strong resistance by some stakeholders that slows down the process, and the absence of strong evidence that the Commission is prepared to maintain its ambitions, despite industry protests. There we have doubts. Very often the Commission tends to band with the industry position – the difference between the walk and the talk.

Beyond energy-related products, we also have massive opportunities in textiles, furniture, detergents. Those are not yet in the eco-design scope. You could extend it with a specific work plan for non-energy related products, but apply the same kind of approach.

Do you think this Commission prioritises business over the environment?

I think they clearly priortise business over the environment, but I have seen good positive signs that they (are) start(ing) to understand that thinking that way is probably an obsolete way of thinking for Europe. I think they’ve got it, but they need to overcome the inertia. In Europe, what we need is to combine business and environment opportunities.

There’s money to be made here.

Absolutely. The business of the future will be around the circular economy.

Will this business of the future be existing industry players, or disruptive new market entrants?

Everybody knows we are going towards the circular economy. But if we go too slowly, we will be left with the old actors. What they ask is to be left alone to continue making as much money as possible with their traditional business model, and when we have exhausted that, we will change. I am sorry to say it’s a bit like the fossil fuel industries. They got the money to invent new renewable technologies, but they make so much money from crude oil, they won’t stop.

It’s time to create the conditions for new disruptive technologies and models to appear and challenge these old actors. To be honest, in view of the power of these old actors, I have no fear they can adapt.

The role of the Commission and the role of public authorities is to do what no one else can do. Don’t play the business role, you are policymakers. Play the policy role, so that business is challenged and that will be good for industry, investment and job creation. A regulatory and economic framework is needed.

Do we need binding targets?

Of course. We can be frustrated with binding targets, but the evidence is that when we had binding targets, we’ve made progress. When we haven’t, we haven’t made progress.

What would a truly ambitious circular economy package look like?

The definition of different instruments, starting from product design and policy, to incentives for secondary raw materials, and recycling businesses, and creating the right tools for orienting direction toward new business models and new consumption models.

Are customers ready to pay more for recycled products?

No. Not if the question is put like that. But I am sure they are ready to pay same price for the same performance. If you’ve got same performance, or even better, and on top of that you are not harming the environment, I am sure they will be happy to pay.

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