Rob Buurman works as a policy officer for the Flemish Federation for a Better Environment (Bond Beter Leefmilieu). The circular economy is his field of expertise, including classical waste management but also innovative business models in the sharing economy and product-service systems. Another area of focus is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, better known as TTIP.
Rob has degrees in both aeronautical engineering and philosophy of science, technology and society. Previous to working for BBL, Rob has worked as an environmental engineer and as a policy officer for a Belgian consumer organisation.
The circular economy is in crisis. To be clear: authorities, businesses and even many environmental NGOs like the concept of the circular economy. Making sure that materials are kept at their highest value through reuse, remanufacture and recycling, is an idea that is not only environmentally sound but also makes good business sense. It is not surprising that the concept has gained traction throughout the last couple of years, but the broad endorsement of the circular economy is also leading to its erosion.
Every multinational, even the oil-drilling kind, wants to look green and the circular economy often provides the perfect alibi. Think about the well-known producer of sugared water, Coca-Cola. The company supports the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has the sole mission to make the circular economy happen.
The foundation’s website contains a bright and simple flowchart that should illustrate Coca-Cola’s enthusiasm and drive towards a circular economy. It also mentions that Coca-Cola “is committed to maximising the usage and value of the plastics used in bottle production.” More concretely, it states that Cola-Cola “has several commitments in this area including a target of reducing 25% of material used by 2020, to use more renewable content, such as plant-based PET, in packaging, and to improve the overall recyclability of their packs.”
Coca-Cola’s intentions and efforts seem laudable, yet, while the preparations for ISWA 2015 in Antwerp are in full swing, Coca-Cola is fighting a battle against the introduction of deposit schemes for drink containers in Belgium and Scotland and is actively undermining such schemes in countries where they are already fully operational and where they play an important role in preventing litter and reaching high levels of recycling and reuse.
Earlier this year, Coca-Cola also decided to phase out their refillable 0,5l and 1,5l plastic bottles in Germany and the 1l refillable glass bottles in Belgium. Ulrik Nehammer, CEO of Coca-Cola Germany even stated recently that “solutions need to be found, otherwise we are stuck with refillables until the end of this century.” As if that is such a bad thing.
The case of Coca-Cola is a regrettable example of the circular economy’s dirty laundry, but the company is not alone. The Danish beer producer Carlsberg has come up with something new, something that looks very circular. It’s still under development, but Carlsberg wants people to drink their beers out of fully biodegradable bottles that are made of paper. They call it “The Green Fiber Bottle Project” and it’s launched as part of the Carlsberg Circular Community initiative. Research, however, tells us that refillable bottles have a significantly lower environmental impact than single-use bottles. Paper bottles really aren’t very helpful.
The fundamental problem with Coca-Cola and Carlsberg is that at first sight they appear to be undertaking initiatives that support the better use of materials and help to keep materials within the circular economy. More recycling is more circular economy, one is tempted to think. But when we review the broader business strategy of Coca-Cola, it becomes clear that the company is actually backpedalling from and fighting against circular economy best-practices such as deposit schemes and refillable bottles.
What we need are initiatives that genuinely help to establish a waste-free circular economy that is low on carbon emissions, low on energy demand and helps to keep materials flowing. The dream of the circular economy can become reality, but it certainly doesn’t help if businesses inflate every process that resembles circularity instead of really committing to reducing dependency on natural resources and cut carbon emissions.
There are many ways to extract value from waste, but they are not all supportive of a circular economy. Case in point is the European discussion about waste to energy. At a conference on resource efficiency organised by Friends of the Earth, director-general of DG Environment Karl Falkenberg was happy to mention the great potential of waste to energy in Europe. A potential that can be unlocked only by building more incinerators and burning more waste.
In the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden we find countries with an overcapacity of incinerators and virtually no improvements in recycling rates of municipal waste over the last 5 documented years (2009-2013). These countries face the problem of a lock-in, meaning that they’ve invested so much in incineration that it becomes unattractive to further increase recycling rates.
At best, incineration with energy production is an intermediate solution that should only apply to waste streams for which we haven’t yet developed the proper technical and policy instruments to recycle them. Building more incinerators may be the single best way to stop the further advancement of the circular economy. But there is not a single European public official that is willing to state that the capacity of incinerators should be limited to avoid lock-ins. Instead, Falkenberg actively promotes energy from waste.
The circular economy is in crisis, partly due to the limited ambitions of private companies who are actively abusing and therefore eroding the concept, and partly because politicians and policy makers are praising their efforts to date. Everybody seems to be fond of the circular economy, precisely because we can all give our own little twist to it. For Coca-Cola, that translates into using more renewable content while combatting deposit schemes and getting rid of refillable bottles.
Later this year the Commission will table its much anticipated new proposal (since the previous proposal was withdrawn) for a circular economy. Let us hope that it helps to drive those businesses that are truly motivated to reduce their impact on the environment. The Commission needs to fundamentally reshape the market place so that business as usual no longer finds a partner in the circular economy.