The European Commission recently renewed the EU Bioeconomy Strategy and shortly before that published the updated Circular Economy legislative package focusing on waste. The Bioeconomy Strategy recognises the necessity of following principles of circularity and sustainability, but can we ensure that Europe will swiftly shift towards a biocircular economy?
It is of utmost importance that both of these initiatives complement each other in order to build a circular and renewable economy. The EU Commission sees the sustainable bioeconomy as the renewable segment of a circular economy. The Commission also recognises the need for change in producing and utilising materials and goods. The tricky part is ensuring that it actually happens and, at the same time, keeping EU industries competitive and sustainable. The combination of the responsible use of available resources with the recycling and reuse of residues is the key to our society’s sustainable future. The design, implementation and execution of the principles of a circular economy are up to the member states.
Awareness improvement is a necessity
It is a commonly known fact that there are significant differences between EU member states in terms of utilisation of resources, waste management and the ambition levels in improvement and development. This applies both to the utilisation of virgin materials and to defining the processes for the recycling and reuse of waste. Hopefully the motivation and ambitiousness the Commission expressed in the Circular Economy legislative package and the Bioeconomy Strategy will be successfully cascaded within all the countries.
To achieve that, education and awareness improvement is a necessity at all administration levels and, even more importantly, at all levels of society. EU citizens should know how they are using resources and what happens when the resources turn into waste. A good example of early education comes from Finnish elementary school, where the children are encouraged to prevent food waste in the school canteen. Each week, every class estimates the amount of food waste generated, and the best performers are rewarded. It is a simple solution, but it works really well.
Education and knowledge sharing have to start with prevention, as in the above example, but it must go further. For instance, product labels in the clothing and footwear industries could include a recyclability indicator to facilitate the separate collection of the same categories of materials destined for recycling. The virgin fossil materials used in clothing and footwear production should be gradually replaced with biodegradable equivalents. Many of us have no idea if virgin materials were used to produce our daily attire, and even if our clothes are organic it doesn’t mean they were sustainably produced and transported. Labelling and the certification of consumer products could enable conscious choices by individuals.
Sustainability and efficiency requires that recycled (raw) materials and fuels, even if originating from fossils, should be utilised before introducing a new virgin raw material. This logic should apply to all recycled materials, not only the bio-based ones.
Research and development support needed for bio-based industries
The EU Commission is predicting that bio-based industries could create around one million new jobs by 2030, driven by increased primary bio-production and, for instance, by bio-refining, producing components for bio-fuels, bio-chemicals, bio-plastics and bio-fabrics. The new generation of biorefineries in the EU is still largely in the demo or R&D phases of development. It must be recognised that research and innovation projects need support to become commercially viable. This will require the deployment of dedicated financial instruments as well as the enabling of policies on both the EU and national levels, especially considering that the EU Commission foresees the construction of 300 new biorefineries. It also requires a shift in policy-maker focus from bioenergy-only to high-value bio-based materials – for instance, a preference for using biomass for high-value bio-based materials and using reject biomass as a transitional energy source for electricity and heat production.
Senior Manager, Public Affairs