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Home » Circular Economy, Resource Efficiency

Switching from linear economy

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:47

Our quality of life, health and jobs all depend on the environment. However, the way and the rate we are using up natural resources today risk undermining our well-being along with nature’s ability to provide for us. Hans Bruynickx, Executive Director, European Environment Agency says we need to fundamentally transform the way we produce, consume and live. The transition needs to start today

Hans Bruynickx

Our planet has limits. Currently, we are using more resources than our planet can produce in a given time. Our overconsumption is weakening our natural systems’ ability to regenerate and to produce, but also their capacity to adapt to challenges such as climate change. Unsustainable use of resources is not just an environmental problem. It has economic and social implications. Access to resources, exposure to pollution and the state of our natural capital are key factors in determining our health, well-being and quality of life in general.

Our unsustainable use of natural resources and its impacts on our quality of life require us to reformulate fundamentally the way we produce, consume and live in a way so that our economic activities do not harm human health and the environment. In short, we need to green our economy.

In addition to goods and services, current production and consumption systems also produce residues – pollutants and unused pieces of materials or simply waste. Any part that is not utilised actually represents a potential economic loss as well as an environmental problem. Of the 4.5 tonnes of waste treated in 2012, less than half was fed back into the economy. For municipal waste, our studies confirm that the potential gains of better management in the European Union are immense. Municipal waste is only a part of the waste generated.

Throughout the entire production and consumption system, we are actually wasting valuable resources, some of which are very difficult or impossible to replace. For example, when the electronic devices containing rare earths are sent to landfills, they have no value; only environmental costs – a pure economic waste on top of the loss of irreplaceable resources.

The term ‘circular economy’ foresees a production and consumption system that generates as little loss as possible. It entails creating production systems that generate decreasing amounts of waste or that produce more with less input. In other words, our economy also has to become more resource efficient.

Europe has already achieved significant gains in increasing its resource efficiency. In the last decade, the EU economy created more ‘value added’ in terms of Gross Domestic Product for each unit of material (minerals, metals, etc.) consumed. This trend confirms that economic growth does not always have to come with an ever-growing material use and environmental impacts. We can actually get more out of less, but much more needs to be done.

Increasing resource efficiency requires considering entire systems, rather than sectors. A system comprises all the processes and infrastructures that exist in connection with a resource or an activity, which are essential for human activities. For example, we waste almost 180 kg of food per person every year in the European Union. This implies wasting the land, water, fertilisers and energy used in its production as well. How can we change the food system to prevent food waste in a way that consumers, supermarkets and food producers all worked towards producing, selling and buying only what will be eaten?

What gets extracted needs to be used again and again. The leftover of one process needs to become the input of another. And it is possible. We are now able to capture methane from cattle farms and use it for heating – something unimaginable decades ago.

We also need to explore new technological possibilities and make innovative solutions the norm. And research and business communities play a key role here. Eco-innovation projects, renewables, and research in general all play a crucial role in designing better products and processes and reducing waste. The consumer and the producer are equally important players in greening our economy. The production process is geared to deliver what consumers want. We need to question whether we want to own more consumer products or we just want the services that the products provide.


More and more companies are adopting business approaches known as ‘the sharing economy’. This enables consumers to meet their needs through leasing, product-service systems and sharing arrangements, rather than purchases. This might require a new way of thinking about marketing and product design — with less focus on sales and more focus on making durable and repairable products.

A mix of economic incentives and regulations can boost innovation and can actually improve the competitiveness of European industry. Various EU strategies and legislation, such as Europe 2020, the Flagship initiative for a Resource-Efficient Europe, the Waste Framework Directive or the 7th Environment Action Programme, are already in place and try to instil sustainability in key economic activities in a long-term transition perspective.

As consumers, we also have a role to play in supporting the transition towards green economy. Throughout history, consumption patterns have constantly evolved. We can use this flexibility to our advantage, and can steer the course towards sustainability. Greening an entire economy — European and ultimately global — is an immense task. Although the transition might be a long-term process, it requires immediate action. Today’s decisions, including those on key infrastructures such as energy and transport, will determine what our sustainable future will look like.