The circular economy is a tangible set of solutions – and our best chance of reaching sustainable patterns of production and consumption. The implications are enormous, not just for the way we do business, but also for the jobs of the future and for the natural world that surrounds us.
Take an unlikely example from the seas. An unusually high number of cetaceans have been stranded on Europe's beaches this year. When 13 sperm whales died on the shore near Toenning in Germany in February, post-mortems were inconclusive, but the whales all shared one remarkable feature. Their stomachs were full of plastic pieces of all sizes, from tiny nodules to a 13-metre fishing net.
Whales are astonishing creatures, with the largest brain of any animal ever known. They live in tight-knit social groups, they speak a language we cannot understand, and they can dive more than a kilometre below the waves. Their skeletons are suspended from the ceilings of museums all around the world, and if you stand below these arched structures you are filled with awe. Yet, as a species, we haven't yet learned how to stop our plastic from ending up in the ocean, where it will pollute the water column for decades to come.
This litter is one part of a far larger global problem. Our planet is warming, species are disappearing, and the resources on which we depend are becoming scarcer. If we continue down the path of “make, use, dispose”, unwanted side effects are inevitable. At least one third of the world's plastic waste is neither collected nor managed, so it's no surprise that so much ends up in the seas. And it's not just sea creatures that suffer from this approach; it's difficult to see how we could reach the Sustainable Development Goals with our current economic model. We haven't yet learned how to stop our plastic from ending up in the ocean, where it will pollute the water column for decades to come.
But we can change, as we have done before. Human creativity and innovation are boundless, and we can bring health and prosperity to billions in ways that exploit resources far less. But this requires moving away from our linear economic model to a more circular pattern, where waste becomes a thing of the past.
A circular economy would benefit our environment, but it's also smart economics. The idea is to keep a given resource circulating for as long as possible. That means designing products, processes and services to optimize the use of resources, so that when something reaches the end of its useful life, we re-use, repair, or remanufacture it for another use. Or we recycle the materials it contains and re-inject them into the economy elsewhere.
There are implications for many spheres of activity. We need to build circularity into energy, transport and construction. It means greener agriculture, combating climate change, preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services. We need different business models. And there are major implications for how we control our economies. We need to shift taxes from labour to pollution and resource use, to stop subsidizing activities that harm the environment, and to encourage industry to take a longer-term view and invest in less resource-intensive technologies.
Just two months after the historic agreement to the Sustainable Development Goals in New York, the European Commission put forward a package to enable the transition to a more circular economy. It includes measures for the whole economic spectrum, from design and manufacturing to consumption and recycling. Food waste is an area of particular concern. Sustainable Development Goal 12 – ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns – includes the target of halving food waste by 2030. The Commission is committed to helping citizens deliver on this target, and action will follow.
Plastics, too, will be under the microscope, with renewed efforts to boost recycling and address the challenges this vital material presents throughout its lifecycle – including, of course, significantly reducing marine litter.
Four months after the launch of the circular economy initiative, the first tangible measures include new rules for fertilizers, making it easier for manufacturers to re-use raw materials that were previously disposed of as waste, and opening up Europe's single market to organic and waste-based fertilizers. The coming months will see many more initiatives in areas such as green public procurement, eco-design, food waste, plastics, water re-use, chemicals and innovation. These represent many small steps that will, I hope, bring us much closer to the new economy we need.
The EU remains the world's most open market and the world's largest donor of development aid. We are already supporting developing countries towards more sustainable production and consumption efforts. The EU will invest €1.3 billion specifically for environment and climate-related global public goods and challenges by 2020, including, for example, €154 million on forests and €81 million on water.
In a globalized world, we will need to transform our economies globally if the circular economy concept is to achieve its full potential. Europe cannot do it alone. Let's find ways to accelerate those positive trends and make circularity our natural way of thinking. I'm confident that this is the way forward, if we are to keep the commitment we all made last September for a global action on sustainable development.