The challenge? Meet the needs of the world's population with the minimum impact on the planet.
On September 11, 2018, La REcyclerie had a full house for the third Circular Conference of the year (the 13th in the 2C series), organized by the Veolia Foundation. Intended primarily for students and general public, this annual series of four conferences shares the main principles of circular economy and its challenges.
Hosted by the CliMates young people’s network, the conferences bring in different experts according to their specialty: responsible food, energy transition, protecting the oceans, etc. The back-to-school event was dedicated to sustainable lifestyles. The main question is: how can the ways we produce and consume be made more responsible?
Two observations: scarcity of materials and demographic explosion
Why do we need the circular economy? "Everything starts with a very simple observation: we have almost exhausted all our natural resources," explains Emeric Fortin, a professor at the École des Ponts in France. "For example, if we look at indium rates - the material used to make the flat screens on our smartphones and computers - the reserves will be completely exhausted in 16 years."
The second observation was raised by Amélie Rouvin, head of Circular Economy Commitment at Veolia. "Estimates predict there will be 9 billion of us on the planet by 2050. Which means an equivalent need for energy, water, food and farmland."
The challenge is therefore clear: meet the needs of the world's population with the minimum impact on the planet.
However, right now we are far from that point. If we want to comply with the Paris Agreement – i.e. limit the rise in temperature to below the 2 degree mark - we not only have to begin to decrease CO2 emissions, but it also means that by 2070 we will have to achieve a zero rate. That means zero emissions when we move, when we eat or when we heat our homes and workplaces.
We can probably count on technical progress to help us reduce our impact, but that progress alone just won’t be enough. There is a real systemic challenge. "In short, if we don’t change the way we produce, consume and travel on a daily basis, we will soon be confronted with serious problems of access to materials and the degradation of our environment. With disastrous consequences: depletion of biodiversity, scarcity of drinking water, rising waters, etc.” says Emeric Fortin.
Changing our lifestyles with the circular economy
The circular economy can help us change our way of life. It offers a real economic and societal paradigm shift. "We tend to limit it to recycling, but the circular economy is much more than that," says Amélie Rouvin. There are 7 pillars:
For Amélie Rouvin, one of the major issues now is recycling plastics. "In most cases, plastic is "down-cycled", meaning it is recycled in a way that means it loses value compared to its initial state: textile fiber or insulation for example.” Contrary to common belief, "bottle to bottle" is still rare. Germany is one of the most advanced countries in the field: the Veolia site in Rostock for example recycles 1 billion bottles a year. We are moving from the world of recycling to the world of supplying "secondary raw materials". Turning waste into resources is the best way to avoid the extraction of virgin raw materials.
2. Reuse repair and recovery
Reuse consists of putting the product back into the economic circuit in its original condition (by selling or giving it away, for example). Repair makes it possible to fix broken goods. Finally, recovery refers to reusing the components from one product in other design cycles.
3. Collaborative consumption and usage
Mutualization of goods, sharing of services ... Collaborative consumption has been developing rapidly over the past ten years. In particular, it makes it possible to maximize the use of products and extend their life.
4. The functional economy
In the functional economy, the use of a product rather than the product itself is bought.
"For example, we have to ask ourselves whether we really need to own a car - in other words 1 metric ton of material is immobile for 96% of the time. From an environmental point of view, it is far more interesting to rent one – and so rent the mobility service - rather than own it," explains Emeric Fortin.
Eco-design involves designing a product with its entire life cycle in mind so that it can be recycled or its components reused once they are obsolete.
For example, Castorama and Veolia have developed a counter top for an eco-designed kitchen – Cooke & Lewis Infinite. Not only is it entirely made from renewable resources (35% recycled wood and 65% recycled plastic) but it is also 100% recyclable when it reaches the end of its life.
6. Extraction and sustainable purchases
Businesses and communities are invited to adopt a responsible purchasing policy by taking into account environmental criteria in their decisions. Particular attention should be paid to resource extraction methods, the most polluting phase.
7. Industrial and territorial ecology
The aim is to network actors in the same territory to optimize the exchange of energy flows and materials between them. For example, the waste recovery center in the port area of Le Havre supplies neighboring industries with energy by even recycling CO2 emitted by the site.
"Each actor has a role to play in transforming our production and consumption patterns: manufacturers, businesses, municipalities, the state, associations and of course citizens", points out Amélie Rouvin.
Yoyo, a start-up that optimizes recycling
The start-up Yoyo does just that by optimizing citizen power. Created in 2016, its mission is to double the rate of plastic recycling in cities in one year. How? "We don’t think lecturing folk works. We prefer to rely on rewards to encourage citizens to become engaged sorters," says Eric Brac de la Perrière, its founder.
In a city or neighborhood, Yoyo recruits "network heads", who act as coaches. They distribute numbered sorting bags and tips for sorting waste to neighborhood volunteers. The instructions are straightforward: 1 type of waste per bag. "There is a paradox in France: we mix all the waste in sorting bags and then in the sorting plant someone is responsible for separating it. Putting only one type of waste in each bag optimizes recycling".
Thanks to the numbers on the bags, residents can follow the whole route of their recycled waste in a short circuit. In addition, for each bag they fill they receive points. When they reach a certain number of points, they are eligible for special gifts: tickets to the movies, vouchers, discounts, etc.
In the 4 cities in which Yoyo operates in France - Bordeaux, Lyon, Mulhouse, and Marseille - the recycling rate is 85%, while in most in other cities it is around 10%. "People are happy to recycle, they feel they are doing a good deed and it creates a social bond within the neighborhood. Our action proves that we can change our relationship to waste in joy and good humor," concludes Eric Brac de la Perrière.
The political and legal framework for sustainable consumption
States and local authorities also have a key role to play in rolling out the circular economy. By putting a favorable regulatory and legal framework in place, they help transform our economic model on a large scale.
Marline Weber of France’s national circular economy institute lists the main directives: "at international level, there are the 17 sustainable development goals signed by UN member countries, the "circular economy package" at European level, and finally at national level, the energy transition law promulgated in 2015 and the circular economy roadmap published in 2018."
In general, states can act using three main levers.
Regulation. In France for example, products are being banned: plastic beads in cosmetics (2018), plastic dishes and cutlery (2018) and cotton buds (2020). Similarly, planned obsolescence - techniques used by manufacturers to deliberately reduce the life of their products - has been against the law since 2014.
Incentive. The principle of incentive-based waste collection is for example included in circular economy roadmap. It is already in place in some municipalities, such as Besançon, where the tax on waste is indexed by weight. This has significantly reduced the volume of garbage and increased that of sorted waste. It is estimated that each household saves about 200 euros per year thanks to this measure.
- Awareness. It's all about information, education and publications. "At our national circular economy institute we are for example proud that our proposal to educate people about the circular economy principle from primary school level has been included in the government's roadmap."
Above all, we are all actors in information. We all have a role to play in talking to the people around us - friends, families, colleagues - to make them aware of the importance of changing our way of life. "And you can start this weekend by participating in the World Clean Up Day on September 15. A global mobilization day when everyone can help clean up the environment," concludes Amélie Rouvin.
Credits: Veolia Library