With the Paris Climate Change Agreement reached in December, there is a growing sense of optimism that we will be able to steer the world economy towards environmental sustainability. Much talk in Paris was around the rapid growth in renewable energy, a potential end to the age of coal and oil, and ambitious plans for reforestation. But there was less noise around transforming our manufacturing and the products we buy. How can we achieve both material, as well as energy, sustainability?
One promising part of the answer lies in a new package of measures that was announced by the European Commission just before the Paris Agreement. This ‘Circular Economy Package’ plans to improve resource efficiency across the EU by closing the loop of product life cycles to ensure more value is extracted from raw materials, products and waste. The long term aim is to avoid as much material as possible going to landfill, some of which now contain more precious and rare earth metal deposits than mines.
So what has the Commission proposed to achieve this? The package focuses on waste with 2030 targets to halve food waste, to recycle 65% of municipal waste and to landfill a maximum of 10% of all waste. As well as improving the biodegradability of plastics and removing more potentially hazardous substances, there is a target to significantly reduce marine litter. There was also innovation funding announced to accelerate the transition to new business models.
The demand side is less represented, and although there is a useful nod to quality standards for secondary recycled materials such as plastics, a detailed timeline is needed to accelerate their use, which is currently very low. There is also an Ecodesign Working Plan to promote the maintenance and recycling of materials, but again, more detail is needed on how this will be achieved for other products beyond the current proposals for electronics.
Overall I believe the ambition is in the right direction, and the joint working shown across the EU Commission departments is a useful blueprint for national governments to follow, given the cross-cutting nature of these measures. More action does need to be taken to provide details on how some of these targets will be achieved, and is needed soon so businesses can start to plan accordingly. Also, given the opportunities arising from the increase in digital technologies, this package could also do with recognising that the way our societies use products is already changing.
Digital technologies like mobile, social, data analytics, cloud and machine-to-machine (M2M) are enabling a more efficient use of resources by connecting people with products and services when they need them. This is particularly important when we are looking to move from products to services, and also as we are looking to extend the life of products through better maintenance and repair.
For example, mobile connections can now allow remote analytics and maintenance of vehicles, avoiding the need to drive to a repair centre. This is another step towards fully automated vehicles, which are expected to improve the utilisation of an asset that currently can sit in a parking space for 95% of its life. The potential for these technologies to improve efficiencies within the economy is huge. More examples are given in this report from BT to help the UK Government towards the commitments of the Paris Agreement through ICT-driven solutions.
Looking ahead the opportunity for the European Commission, and for national governments implementing legislation to support the targets, will be to steer industry and consumers towards more resource efficient business models by harnessing these new smart technologies. The prize for achieving this will be a more resilient economy and a healthier environment, and will help support achieving the transformation required for the Paris Agreement too.
Steven Moore is Principal Consultant, Sustainable Business at BT.