Circular Economy: Time to get serious on ‘recycle, repair, reuse’

What if you had financial incentive to return old products, so parts could be used again?

It’s happening now: our planet is warming, species are disappearing, and resources are becoming scarcer.

In a world where the population grows every day, and living standards continue to rise, we need a different economic model. We need a circular economy.

Many people are taking a moment to look back, pledging to live healthier lives, to eat better and exercise more. But we are not the only ones that need to change. We need to spare a thought for the world around us.

Keeping materials circulating inside the economy will relieve the pressure on our resources and environment, as well as create business opportunities.


It can build a new generation of European enterprises making clean products and services to market around the globe.

It can create local and diverse jobs all across Europe in eco-design, waste prevention, repair and recycling, as well as new services based on renting or sharing products.

Greenhouse emissions

An economy like that could bring annual savings of €600 billion for EU businesses and reduce total annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2 to 4 per cent.

But a good resolution is never enough. That's why the European Commission adopted an action plan to move Europe towards a more circular economy, with proposals for design, production, consumption, recycling, and back again to production. There are also proposals for new recycling targets.

Most people would repair and reuse more if they only knew how. Do you know where to take your jeans or your furniture when it’s time to upgrade? What if you had a guide on how or where to repair your goods? What if you had a financial incentive to return old products, so the materials and parts could be used again?

We think consumers and businesses should have this information. We want producers to design products that last longer and are easier to repair. And we want it to be financially worthwhile for producers to design their products in this way.

To get the ball rolling, we’ll be looking at incentives to make it easier to dismantle products such as flat screen TVs so they don’t end up on the scrapheap, with valuable materials going to waste.

The stakes are high. The EU currently discards about 600 million tonnes of waste materials every year. While recycling rates reach 80 per cent in some countries, in others they are below 5 per cent.

In Ireland, 40 per cent of municipal waste was recycled in 2013, which is far behind the EU's front-runners. What we propose is a plan for raising that average, while still taking into account the differences between member states.

Competitive advantage

The EU is already advanced in energy-efficient, low-carbon and resource-efficient technologies, and we need to build on this competitive advantage. Those best placed to make this shift are our small and medium enterprises, and many are ready to move ahead.

EU finance can help. To reinforce circular economy-related innovation and attract investors, the EU is mobilising European Structural and Investments Funds, its flagship Research and Innovation Programme - Horizon 2020, and cohesion policy, and working closely with the European Investment Bank.

The Industry 2020 in the Circular Economy initiative will grant over €650 million to innovative demonstration projects. The commission will also guide future investment, steering it towards more green choices, with progressive divestment from unsustainable activities.

A circular economy could be the smartest answer to the problems we face in 2016.

It’s time to start transforming our economy in a way that reduces costs for business, creates jobs, and makes our environment cleaner.

Karmenu Vella is European Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs