CEresearchNRW: The EU Circular Economy Action Plan – Research and Practice in NRW?

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Julian Mast

The EU Circular Economy Action Plan - Research and Practice in NRW?

On 27.01, the NRW research network also started the year with a web seminar.

The Prosperkolleg is focusing the first half of 2022 on the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), which is a key component of the Green Deal.

In the understanding of the Prosperkolleg, the CEAP can be seen as setting the course for a future-oriented and responsible economic system, as it can have a great influence on the design, use and disposal of products.

Over the next few months, the CEAP will focus on the various key topics (e.g. construction, textiles, plastics and packaging).

For the start of the series we had the pleasure to welcome two speakers who presented the essence of CEAP and appreciated it in a critical commentary. Eva Weik from the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) clarified in her presentation “Action Plan Circular Economy” that the Green Deal represents an “integrative sustainability system” for the EU, which should enable the achievement of more sustainability and the EU’s environmental goals (such as greenhouse gas neutrality or reduction of pollutants). Although the CEAP is intended to encompass the entirety of the economic system, seven key areas are identified in the action plan, including, for example. Textiles and plastics. The EU’s goal is to be a global pioneer in the field of circular economy. In addition to the role of politics, Weik also emphasized the role of companies in this transformation process, as they often have to make significant changes to their business models, production processes or supply chains in order to meet the above-mentioned objectives. Since the CEAP affects companies of all sizes, measures can and should be taken at all levels of the value chain.
be developed. 

A key aspect of CEAP is making products more sustainable. This can be achieved through a variety of strategies, such as more durable product design or
an adapted development of products, which enables the reuse, retrofitting and/or repair of products. One approach to establishing these objectives is the
Extension of the eco-directive to include products or entire product categories (e.g. textiles or packaging). According to Weik, a major opportunity for more sustainable product design is also the
Integrating digital capabilities into development. Thus, the introduction of a digital product passport presents itself as a new opportunity to obtain information about certain products in a transparent manner and to take this as the basis for making purchasing decisions.

Weik indicated that the concrete impact of the CEAP is still difficult to assess from a current perspective. On the one hand, he said, it was necessary to make massive investments that would transform
towards CE is required. On the other hand, however, Weik is cautiously optimistic about the future, as the implementation of the CEAP also offers new opportunities for innovation and the development of new business models.

In the second presentation (“The Promise of Circularity”), Prof. Dr. Christian Schulz from the University of Luxembourg commented critically on the CEAP based on his own research findings from the regional context of Sweden and Luxembourg. Prof. Schulz pointed out that the concept of Circular Economy (CE) is not novel, but in some ways is experiencing a renaissance. CE grew out of Ayre’s concept of industrial metabolism and has received increased attention since the mid-2010s. This attention is also reflected in a
Determination of politicians to advance the topic, as indicated by a large number of political concepts, studies and the like. Schulz emphasized that despite the EU-wide push, the implementation of the Circular Economy has progressed very differently in the individual countries and that the BeNeLux countries in particular are leading the way in implementation. Due to time constraints
he referred to the following three aspects in his presentation: The perception of CE, barriers for industry and crafts, and the character of the economic system. 

With regard to the perception of CE, Schulz saw above all an excessive focus of companies on their own system boundaries. Using the example of steel producers, he explained that it is not enough to look only at the return rates of the steel (which are very high); rather, one must also consider the upstream effort associated with it and with reprocessing. Thus, increased recycling cannot be considered better per se, but must be evaluated holistically and compared with concrete alternative scenarios. 

With regard to possible barriers for industry and trade, Schulz then listed not only external barriers but also internal company barriers that could stand in the way of implementing the Circular Economy. As external barriers, Schulz first listed counterproductive standards or regulatory gaps that inhibit the use of secondary material, even though it appears potentially suitable for further use (for example, in the construction industry). Schulz saw internal barriers primarily in the high capacity requirements for resources (such as know-how) in order to adapt business models or products. 

Within the third critically examined aspect, Schulz dealt with the integration of CE into the current economic system. He noted that CE strategies are primarily aimed at increasing resource efficiency. The goal of the approaches is to make products more circular (“driving an SUV is perfectly fine as long as it is designed and produced in a circular way”). On the other hand, other strategies such as sufficiency and consistency strategies, which would be associated with more far-reaching social changes, are clearly neglected. However, selected approaches such as sharing show that approaches that involve society more in the approach can also work. Such approaches can go a long way toward achieving sustainability, but they are more difficult to reconcile with the economy’s current consumption patterns.

Based on the presentations, Paul Szabó-Müller moderated a panel discussion in which Ulrike Künnemann (InnoZent OWL e.V. / CirQuality OWL), Dr. Manfred Renner (Fraunhofer UMSICHT) and Dr. Hennig Wilts (Wuppertal Institute) also participated. The participants in the discussion agreed on the motivation and the necessity of the action plan. Ms. Künnemann made it clear once again that companies need support in these transformation processes. This includes, in particular, a coherent legal framework. These must be communicated to companies with a lead time and in a comprehensible manner so that they can develop their strategies accordingly. Multipliers such as associations, networks and business development agencies can provide useful support here. 

Dr. Renner also praised the motivation of CEAP, but equally emphasized the role of society, which is not considered in this form in CEAP. Similar to Prof. Schulz, he sees CEAP’s approach as very much about changing technologies, but doubts that all technological ones are really necessary. Using the VW Golf (generations I vs. VIII) as an example, Renner showed the development of a product in recent years and at the same time asked to what extent this development is goal-oriented. It is society’s responsibility to carry the concepts in terms of sufficiency and consistency (“What is it worth to us to have technology XY in the car [und benötigen wir das wirklich in einem Auto]”?). 

Dr. Wilts focused not only on the direct transformation process of CEAP, but also on the changes it means for “linear industries”. For example, Wilts called for an approach that additionally includes the integration of actors who do not benefit from the transformation. Concepts for retraining or further training would also have to be offered to employees who are affected by the downsizing of linear concepts. In addition to these cautionary words, he also argued that NRW should be a pioneer in CE transformation, as the state has already had to deal with transformation processes sufficiently and can thus already demonstrate a greater level of experience in dealing with them.

Thank you for your participation, we look forward to seeing you at the other dates in the CEAP series. 

As always, you will receive the program and the closer dates in time.