Circular Economy – Policies and Learnings from Europe

Energy and environment 14:13

Various European countries are currently introducing and implementing a variety of policies in the area of circular economy. However, further efforts are needed to understand the impact of these laws and regulations and to improve the monitoring of progress towards a circular economy. To this end, recognised experts from various European environmental agencies met for a workshop at the World Resources Forum 2023 (WRF'23) in Geneva.

Autor:innen: Emanuele Di Francesco (WRF), Rebecca Suhner (WRF), Christian Holzner (SATW), Xaver Edelmann (SATW und WRF) 


The circularity rate is still unsatisfactory in many countries

Recently, there has been a wide range of regulatory developments at the EU level and in several European countries, as well as in Switzerland, with the aim of fostering the acceleration of the circular economy. Despite these efforts, the latest Circularity Gap Report has shown that the global circularity rate (proportion of materials recycled as part of total material consumption) has fallen from 9.1 per cent in 2018 to 7.2 per cent in 2023.

The Circularity Gap Report for individual countries shows remarkable differences in the circularity rate: from 2.4 per cent in Norway (2020) and 6.9 per cent in Switzerland (2023) to 9.7 per cent in Austria (2019) and 24.5 per cent in the Netherlands (2020).

These figures paint a paradoxical picture: the increased efforts in circular economy policies have not led to an overall increase in the circularity rate. Most importantly, however, the rates emphasise the importance of monitoring progress towards a circular economy and its benefits in terms of environmental impact. Without clear indicators and monitoring frameworks, the actual potential of the circular economy to improve sustainability cannot be measured and verified.

To contribute to this topic, the SATW launched the project "Circular economy - how good is Switzerland?" in 2020 as part of the thematic platform for a sustainable circular economy. This project, led by Dr Bruno Oberle, President of the WRF, used interviews and literature studies to analyse the circular economy in Switzerland, its current policies and status, as well as future goals and potential. The project aims to propose new indicators to measure the impact of the circular economy in Switzerland so that it can be better monitored and managed at an aggregate level and also for specific materials and sectors.

Exchange of experiences between the EU, Austria, Germany and Switzerland

In thematic presentations, the workshop at WRF'23 provided an overview of circular economy legislation at EU level and in three countries: Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In addition, the ongoing SATW project provided an overview of the proposal for new indicators to measure the circularity rate. The highlights from the presentations and discussions are summarised below.

Regulation of the circular economy in the EU member states

Peder Jensen, European Environment Agency EEA

The number of EU countries with circular economy policy frameworks has increased from 3 countries in 2016 to 20 countries in 2022. Only a few countries carry out an overall assessment of the transition to circular economy, but 15 countries have developed their own monitoring frameworks.

A key indicator is the Circular Materials Usage Rate (CMUR), which indicates the proportion of waste recovery in relation to total material consumption in the economy. Some countries have already set specific targets for the CMUR (e.g. Estonia or Latvia).

Certain countries have also set targets for other dimensions of the circular economy, such as the reduction of the per-capita material footprint (Austria), the minimum quantity of reused goods (Belgium), resource efficiency (Estonia) or the use of recycled plastic (France).

The main challenges and barriers to the transition to a circular economy in Europe were identified in the following five areas:

  • Institutional structures and governance
  • Legal and regulatory requirements
  • Market, economy and finance
  • Consumer awareness and behaviour
  • technical and technological obstacles. This results in a particular need for action with regard to suitable data bases, harmonised indicators and the definition of realistic targets for the circular economy.  

Swiss circular economy policy and legislation

Niklas Nierhoff, Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, Switzerland

The current framework for the circular economy focuses mainly on waste regulations and emphasises end-of-life and reuse. These include a ban on landfilling household waste, extended producer responsibility for beverage packaging and batteries and the recycling of various other materials.

However, even if all waste could be recycled, this would only cover a fifth of current material requirements. This emphasises the need for better framework conditions and strategies that start before material recycling (such as reuse, repair or refurbish).

Complementing measures include industry agreements, funding programmes and public procurement. The estimated savings from selected circular economy measures would be highest in the areas of food waste, steel and concrete, plastic waste and biogas.

An ongoing parliamentary initiative in Switzerland focuses on several aspects of strengthening the circular economy, including anchoring the conservation of resources, strengthening reuse, possible measures for the eco-design of products and packaging or the circular economy in the construction sector and in public procurement. Building materials account for around a tenth of Switzerland's greenhouse gas footprint, and the circular economy offers great potential for constructing buildings with fewer embedded emissions.

The Austrian Circular Economy Strategy and Implementation Measures

Brigitte Karigl, Federal Environment Agency, Austria

The Austrian circular economy strategy comprises four strategic goals:

  • Reduction of resource consumption and use of resources (sparing resources)
  • Avoidance of waste (zero waste)
  • Avoidance of environmental pollution caused by hazardous materials (zero pollution)
  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (climate protection)

The operational targets include reducing resource consumption (material footprint and domestic raw material consumption), increasing domestic resource productivity (by 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2015), increasing the circularity rate (to 18 per cent by 2030) and reducing material consumption in private households (by 10 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020).

Various areas of action have been identified to drive the transition to a circular economy: i) legal and regulatory framework conditions, ii) smart market incentives, iii) financing and funding, iv) research, technology development and innovation, v) digitalisation, vi) information, knowledge and cooperation. The Circularity Lab Austria, founded in 2023, also aims to promote circular economy activities in companies.

The national circular economy strategies in Germany

Timon Leopold, German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection BMUV , Germany

The circular economy strategies in the 2021 government coalition agreement in Germany have two overarching goals: reducing the consumption of primary raw materials and closing material cycles.

The circular economy is not an end in itself, but should become a driver for environmental protection and climate action, with the aim of decoupling gross domestic product and raw material consumption. Key areas to be addressed by the national circular economy strategy include plastics, public procurement, circular production, metals, vehicles and batteries, electronics and ICT, buildings and textiles.

In terms of measurement and monitoring, the current lead indicator is total raw material productivity. However, as this indicator is inadequate  to measure circularity, Germany is currently investigating more suitable indicators such as the circular material utilisation rate.

Circular economy - how good is Switzerland?

Xaver Edelmann, SATW and WRF

The environmental goals of a circular economy include reducing resource consumption, emissions and material waste as well as increasing the proportion of renewable energy and product durability. When formulating indicators, it is important that methods and data are available and that they can be reported for all material flows as well as specifically for certain materials such as construction materials.

There are a variety of indicators that are proposed in the context of different fields of action to improve the circular economy and the associated impacts, such as domestic raw material consumption (RMC) for the reduction of material consumption, product lifetime for the extension of the use of goods, the circular material use rate as a measure for closing loops or the reduction of biodiversity loss as an indicator for the reduction of the environmental impact in general.

The ISO 59020 standard "Circular economy (CE): Measuring and assessing circularity", which is currently being developed, is intended to propose guidelines and processes for measuring and assessing circularity. Finally, indicators should be easy to apply, internationally accepted and the result of cooperation between businesses and regulators to ensure credibility and avoid greenwashing.

Findings and recommendations for a circular future

  • Foster the understanding of circularity: Despite the growing acceptance of circular principles, there is a lack of common understanding of circularity. It is important to formulate and simplify clear and credible indicators to facilitate communication with businesses and society.
  • Integration of national environmental targets into sector-specific measures: National environmental targets should be integrated into recommendations and measures for specific sectors such as the built environment. It is important to increase knowledge about the impact of circular economy regulations.
  • Promote a coordinated international approach: A coordinated approach at international level is needed to take account of current trade relations and the dynamics of value chains. Research and co-operation on international trade aspects of the transition to a circular economy should be promoted.
  • Complement circularity with sufficiency: Circularity should be seen as an instrument for achieving sustainable resource utilisation. For this reason, circularity must be coupled with sufficiency measures to ensure that the transition to a circular economy leads to an absolute reduction in resource consumption. Repair, remanufacturing and life extension measures can play an important role in reducing consumption.
  • Industry participation in the transition to a circular economy: Industry plays a key role in the transition to a circular economy through innovative materials, products and business models. It is important to highlight and promote appropriate solutions and agree on a set of indicators to measure the environmental and economic benefits of circularity.
  • Immediate implementation of measures and improvements: The implementation of measures that can achieve the highest benefits in terms of reduced environmental impact at the lowest cost is now urgently needed. It is also important that these measures do not rely solely on subsidies.

Panellists of the workshop

  • Xaver Edelmann, SATW and WRF (workshop leader)
  • Peder Jensen, European Environment Agency EEA, expert in circular economy and resource efficiency
  • Niklas Nierhoff, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, Research Associate
  • Brigitte Karigl, Austrian Environment Agency, Head of Recycling Management
  • Timon Leopold, German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection BMUV, Deputy Head of Division
  • Emanuele Di Francesco, WRF (Moderator)

The World Resources Forum (WRF) is an international non-profit organisation that mobilises targeted action to promote sustainability and fairness in the global use of natural resources. The WRF 2023 conference (WRF'23) took place in Geneva in September under the title "Rethinking Value - Resources For Planetary Wellbeing" and brought together representatives from science, the public sector, international organisations and the private sector. The focus was primarily on the topics of sufficiency, sustainable value chains and digitalisation, with the circular economy taking centre stage in various interactive workshops and scientific presentations.