The circular economy promises to create more value with fewer resources.
On November 27 at La REcyclerie, the Veolia Foundation organized the last conference for 2018 (and the 14th in the 2C cycle). Aimed at students and the general public, the goal of this annual cycle of four conferences is to share the main principles and challenges for the circular economy.
Run by the CliMates youth network, the conferences call on different experts for each theme. Dominique Bourg - philosopher, vice-president of the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme and patron of the 2C cycle - was present for this last event of the year. The evening’s agenda focused on a central issue for the circular economy: how do we manage our resources better?
Humanity is living on credit
"We are living on credit” says Dominique Bourg in his introduction. Meaning we consume more natural resources than the planet is able to regenerate in a year. In 2018, the date on which we overran - the day from which we are living on credit - was August 1 and it’s getting earlier every year. "If the whole of humanity lived like French people do, we’d need the resources of three planets to satisfy everyone’s needs. And five planets if we followed the American model!" Even more than just extracting materials, this lifestyle also has disastrous consequences on global warming and species extinction. We therefore need to urgently review our systems of production and consumption.
But one thing is sure. Natural resources are too precious to be used only once. Today, it is estimated that more than 75% of the world’s waste is not recovered. The ultimate goal of the circular economy is to reduce the consumption of resources to that of a single planet. "Do more with less" says Amélie Rouvin, responsible for the circular economy commitment at Veolia. "The circular economy promises to create more shared value with fewer resources."
If we are to achieve this, it is crucial for all actors to cooperate. It is the prerequisite for creating a virtuous model from the point of view of resources, but also for creating economic and social value. All stakeholders have a role to play: civil society, businesses, governments, and of course individual citizens.
Veolia illustrates the role of business
"In a few short years, we have seen our profession change. Initially a waste recovery player, Veolia has now become a producer of recycled raw materials. Our role today is to optimize resource management, be it waste, water or energy, and to create synergies between these three activities," explains Amélie Rouvin. Veolia's philosophy is to build partnerships with start-ups, business, associations, and local authorities.
For example, an ambitious national goal has been set by the French government: 100% of plastic to be recycled by 2025. Veolia works with major companies – Danone, Unilever, Tetra Pak, etc. – to help to achieve this goal by increasing the rate of recycled material in their plastic packaging. Amélie Rouvin says: "The challenge is to find competitive opportunities for recycled materials, which are currently more expensive than virgin materials. We need demand to increase. A whole new economic system has to be created." Economic profitability is indeed key in deploying the circular economy on a large-scale.
In another collaborative project Veolia has partnered with the startup Eco-Mairie.fr. It has developed a platform that gives a second life to objects that are usually dumped: furniture, toys, clothes, gardening and DIY tools, etc. The platform can be customized for each local authority and allows residents as well as businesses working in the social and solidarity economy to list their stocks with geolocation to facilitate exchanges between neighbors. A very useful tool that encourages social cohesion which Veolia can include when responding to local authorities’ invitations to tender.
Developing the circular economy also involves investing in new technologies – and in particular artificial intelligence. It is a promising solution that will help improve the performance of facilities, particularly in the waste sorting sector (there’s no recycling without sorting!). Veolia has invested in a robot equipped with an optical camera, an articulated arm and artificial intelligence that is capable of performing more than 3,000 different sorting gestures. It is currently being tested in a sorting center in Amiens specifically on cardboard.
The political and regulatory framework
Governments also have a role to play in rolling out a large-scale circular economy. Emmanuelle Moesch, who works for the Institut National de l’Economie Circulaire, describes the three levers.
- Regulations. The European Union is now negotiating the terms of banning single use plastic (straws, cutlery, cotton buds, etc.). In France, the law on food waste forces large supermarkets to establish an agreement with associations to give them their unsold food rather than discard it. The principle of "extended producer responsibility" also makes companies in France responsible for the end of life of the products they market.
- Incentive taxation. Taxes can guide the market. For example, in 2020, the increase in the landfill tax will make it more financially attractive to recycle or reuse products rather than send them to landfill.
- Support is an important lever. For example, the national inter-enterprise synergy program developed by ADEME brings together companies in the same territory to create synergies and identify opportunities such as exchanging their material flows, pooling transport, etc.
"It starts with me”, people power
To conclude the conference, Julien Vidal talked about his experience as a committed citizen. After living in Colombia for four years and then in the Philippines - an experience he describes as a process of weaning himself off material things - Julien was struck by the opulence of our lifestyle in France: phones and new cars we change every two years, hundreds of objects collecting dust in our closets and attics, supermarkets that generate tons of unsold goods because they haven’t sold their stock...
His return to Paris prompted him to wonder: what if there were another way of living? And what if rather than going back to the average French lifestyle he tried changing his habits?
So he began the “Ça commence par moi” project. It starts with me. A slightly crazy challenge he set himself for a whole year. The principle? Do something every day that represents an eco-citizen alternative to what we usually do: put a “no junk mail” sticker on his mail box, buy used clothes, repair the furnace rather than buy a new one, compost organic waste, etc.
Incredible results! In just one year, Julien managed to reduce his carbon footprint to 2 metric tons of CO2 (the French average is 10 tons per person), reduce his waste tenfold "without” as he said, “becoming a 0 waste acolyte", and drastically reduce his water consumption.
"I realized that all these new habits, which I thought were punitive, restrictive, and complicated, were in fact a virtuous circle that could be created in our lives. Our daily lives are steeped in small habits. If each of us changes these little things, we will have a really resounding impact,” says Julien.
It was an inspiring speech that echoed Dominique Bourg's remarks: "A society cannot be made ecologically aware against its citizens’ wishes. You have to have solidarity, shared information and awareness. Democracy is not defined only by our official representatives, but by every individual in society."
2C Conferences resume next year. Keep a close eye on the 2019 program at La REcyclerie !
Main picture © Veolia