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SUSTAINABILITY

The importance of improving the circular economy in the EU value chain

Gabriele Gaffuri

Senior Innovation Consultant

Circular Economy

The Circular Economy Action Plan is an essential pillar of the EU Green Deal and provides a clear indication of the urgent need to improve the circularity of our economic model, as recently highlighted at the Circularity Economy Stakeholders Conference in early March.

The current linear model of resource extraction is showing clear signs of unsustainability in the medium to long term, characterised by the wasteful modern society we live in, where systemic efforts to prevent, reduce and recover waste are still given too low a priority. However, as citizens, consumers and businesses are becoming more aware of the problem, circular economy objectives are already a cross-sectoral priority in EU funding programmes. Therefore, it should be highlighted how this transition could be implemented in a more holistic way. Indeed, every sector of our economic system and society can achieve substantial benefits by reducing the waste and secondary outputs produced, valorising its by-products when possible, and making more efficient its primary resource consumption, that will additionally reduce the impact on land and water, both for organic and mineral resources.

Main gaps in the circular economy

Clear examples of evident gaps in circularity can be the sectors of textiles, more and more characterised by a “fast fashion” trend that leads to primary and secondary resource overconsumption and an uncontrolled disposal of still-wearable products, or the health sector that, since the outburst of Covid-19, relies even more on disposable products, raising the costs and limiting the efforts of reducing plastic materials. Agriculture can be a further good example, given the huge quantity of organic by-products that are usually simply thrown away (according to the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, organic waste accounts for half of the global production of solid waste). However, these three sectors have potential as they all show clear gaps but also already identifiable solutions, that anyway need a strong societal and financial commitment to be solved, as it can be the valorisation of organic by-products via anaerobic digestion, composting or insect farming for agriculture, and the focus on durable, washable, and recycled products for the textiles sector and, to a limited extent, the health one.

The circular economy in Horizon Europe

A fundamental question then needs to be answered: How can EU projects help to strengthen the circularity of our value chain across the sectoral economy?

Indeed, it is important to know that most of the main EU programmes include calls that will help accelerate the transformation towards a more circular economy and deliver on the EU’s circular economy policies. On this regard, the Horizon Europe programme plays a key role. It is the leading R&D programme, where the main opportunities arise from:

  • Cluster 4 Digital, Industry and Space (specifically the RESILIENCE topics for 2022).
  • Cluster 5 Climate, Energy and Mobility (in particular the 2022 calls Efficient, Sustainable and Inclusive Energy Use and Sustainable, Secure And Competitive Energy Supply).
  • Cluster 6 Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment, in which for 2022 the main circular-related calls will exclusively be related to the second stage proposals submitted in mid-February.

Other relevant programmes

Even more important are the opportunities included in the LIFE Programme as, in the Environment action field, an entire branch is dedicated to Circular Economy and Quality of Life (100 million budget in 2021). Overall, since 1992, LIFE has been supporting more than 700 projects on waste prevention and reduction, recycling and re-use, totaling more than €1 billion of investment.

In line with the EU’s intention to strengthen the circularity of the value chain, other relevant programmes include the Innovation Fund, both for Small and Large Scale projects (for any industrial symbiosis or circular initiative), CEF (and its topics on built environment and energy), Digital Europe (TEF-AGRIFOOD topic), and Interreg, as SMEs are a vital player in this transition, but often lack the means to achieve the targets, the same targets that will need to be accomplished if we want to complete the transition in which we have been rapidly advancing in the last 10-15 years, and that cannot be further delayed.

Expert person

G
Gabriele Gaffuri

Brussels Office

Senior Innovation Consultant

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