In fact, holding it up as an all-in-one solution may lead us to ignore some of the concept’s shortcomings and especially many of the fundamental questions about absolute production and consumption levels.
Today’s industrial production and consumption – driven by a growing global middle class – uses more re- sources than the planet can sustainably provide. One reason for this is the linear way we use materials and products. We live in a throwaway society, especially since the middle of the last century with the success story of plastics providing us with convenient products at a reasonable price but of course plastic is not the only problematic area. Among the results of the linear economic system are the depletion of resources, a huge biodiversity and habitat loss, waste streams that leak or flow directly into natural ecosystems, and alarming levels of pollution and effects on the environment along the whole product life cycle.
These negative effects have not gone unnoticed by company leaders, consumers and politicians. Especially company leaders have been looking for new production and business models minimizing risks connected with access to raw materials, customer expectations on pollution and climate change, national laws and interna- tional standards; and all of this while ensuring revenue and profit growth for the company as well as increas- ing consumption.
The concept of Circular Economy (CE) has emerged as a promising approach to solve some of these challenges. Though the concept of Circular Economy comes with three main pillars (reduce, reuse recycle), conversations in the industry and in policy making often reduced it to just recycling, see e.g. the Report to the European parliament on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan (European Commission, 2019). Reusing materials after they have served their purpose in a current product is smart and effective: it reduces waste and it reduces the need for primary material in the production of a new product. Over the last thirty years many different recycling systems have been set up and a variety of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies have shown that recycling leads in many cases to a relevant reduction in environmental burdens. For materials like aluminium and other metals, the reduction is by factors of up to ten, for others, like glass, there are reductions by about one third. An important condition for the CE approach is to avoid or at least minimize persistent pollutants, like heavy metals or POPs, so that they do not remain in the recycling-loop and harm humans or the environment. Therefore, the advantages are twofold and the CE movement, institutionalized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has gained many signatory companies and convinced many consumers. Sometimes the impression arises that recycling was invented in the last decades. However, materials such as metals, glass, paper or textiles have been recycled and reused for centuries or thousands of years, also because of the scarcity of these products.
CE is a conceptual way of thinking about our economic system and is often compared to how nature works. It is an important and valid concept, because recycled and reused materials tend to have lower environmental impacts than primary materials, and avoiding harmful substances is an important issue. It is therefore crucial that the concept of CE has become an important issue and has gained high acceptance in society, probably also because it is associated with the promise that no restriction of consumption is necessary as long as everything is being recycled (Braungart & McDonough, 2014). Recycling is widely regarded as a guarantor of sustainable development and, accordingly, the recycling rate and the recycled content as its yardsticks. In this context, it we sometimes forget that there is no material system in our economy that runs as a circular economy. Energy and additional raw materials are always needed, because quality is often reduced through each cycle, leading to environmental impacts and costs, even for products typically celebrated for their circular economy potential such as the glass bottle. Furthermore, the aim of the EU CE package is not to protect recycling rates, but rather to reduce environmental impacts, create jobs and provide the economy with as many “indigenous” resources as possible. Although recycling can contribute to these goals, there are many cases where these goals can be far better achieved through other measures. This is because no material is produced to be recycled, but to fulfil a specific function. This benefit can be much higher than the burden of producing a material. Typically, the protective function of a packaging is much more relevant than the burdens caused by the manufacture of the packaging, which often represents only a fraction of the environmental impacts and costs compared to the packaged good. This has been shown, for example, by the investigations on food from Denkstatt (Pilz, 2016), Carbotech (Dinkel & Kägi, 2016), Williams & Wikström (2011), UNEP (Flanigan u. a., 2013) and others. Therefore, the best packaging is the one providing the optimal protection to the packed goods with the lowest environmental impacts. Recycling can make a positive contribution to this, as e.g. the aluminium can with recycling rates of 90 % and more shows.
However, focusing only on recyclability does not do justice to the need for a holistic approach and can lead to false conclusions and even worsen the environmental impacts. Optimizing the recyclability of materials can be at odds with the most material-effective product design. A good example here is in packaging, where recyclability often means using mono materials and meeting the necessary handling requirements. However, flex- ible packaging, which is extremely lightweight and uses minimal material, has a lower environmental or carbon footprint in many applications than comparable recyclable rigid packaging, if compared over the whole life cycle, even if it is not recyclable. The German institute ifeu has shown that with a shift from rigid to flexible packaging, the environmental impacts can be reduced, even if the rigid packaging is recycled and the flexible packaging is not recycled (Wellenreuther, 2019). Similar results are reported in a study on beverage packaging for the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (Dinkel & Kägi, 2014) or in a presentation by thinkstep (Kieselbach, 2019). These studies have shown that applying the CE concept single-mindedly can lead to undesirable outcomes. Even the Swiss association for the recycling of household waste, Swiss Recycling, has analyzed its systems and found that recycling rates are not the best indicator for measuring its environmental performance (Swiss Recycling, 2017). This year they presented a new indicator system developed together with ETH and Carbotech based on LCA and Costs to evaluate goals and the achievement of these objectives (Haupt & Hellweg, 2019; Swiss Recycling, 2019).
The danger of making the wrong decisions when focusing on recycling is not only evident in the packaging sector. A study on the environmental impacts of an average Swiss citizen has shown that most of the burdens from a Swiss household come from food production, heating and transportation (Froemelt u. a., 2018; Jungbluth u. a., 2011). For these relevant topics, recycling can only make an insignificant contribution and
therefore tends to misguide consumers to have made a significant contribution to sustainable development through recycling (IPSOS Mori, 2011).
In summary, the CE concept can lead to a reduction of environmental impacts and raw material consumption. However, there is also a big risk of a rebound effect because recycling, the one pillar the industry and politics is concentrating on, is not addressing some of the fundamental questions of production and consumption levels, like economic and social effects or rebound effects, see among others (Bening u. a., 2019). The Circular Economy concept alone will never be enough to achieve a more sustainable society. Rather, it implies that companies can further increase their output because the better we design our Circular Economy system, the faster it can spin without losing material. Notwithstanding that recycling also uses energy and other resources, it is connected with losses and can lead to inefficient solutions.
To overcome this problem and to avoid or minimize these shortcomings, additional and holistic approaches – going far beyond recycling rates and recycling content – must be considered to sustain our resources, our environment and our economic system. By holistic, we mean an approach that links the various concepts in such a way as to achieve a high reduction in environmental impacts as well as benefits for society. In addition, it is important that this approach is not limited to a rich country/people perspective but includes also the perspective of the global South. To reach this, it is necessary to develop a target system for the EU within the framework of a joint project, which includes the whole concept of CE, and to focus even more on minimizing environmental impacts, material losses and increasing resource efficiency.