Wilts: Circular Economy in Germany

Henning Wilts

Surprise, Surprise: Germany is not that Circular

Interview with Henning Wilts


The contradictions of a Country that considers 100% recycled a landfilled smartphone and – in its industries – uses 85% of virgin raw materials while boasting strict rules and regulations regarding waste which are correctly implemented and an energy efficiency programme.


The Germany you would not expect. Despite being Europe’s number one manufacturing power and world-renowned for its strict waste management policy (since 2005, for example, putting waste which is not pretreated into landfills has been prohibited), when it comes to developing the circular economy, it is anything but a pacesetter. So says Henning Wilts, head of the prestigious Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy’s circular economy sector. “We are probably moving in the right direction, but we are doing it too slowly. We are too proud of our ability to manage waste,” he explains.

“Politicians think we resolved the problem in the 80s and the 90s, so they do not see what we need to change today. In reality, Germany has no systematic strategy for the circular economy. We have laws on waste, a programme for energy efficiency and one for sustainable consumption, but they are not coordinated. We have not set specific objectives to be achieved, nor do we have an authority of reference or a monitoring system.”


Specifically, what are Germany’s other weaknesses?

“The unsatisfying recovery of secondary raw materials. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are much more advanced than us in terms of using secondary raw materials obtained from waste recycling in industry. Germany acquires enormous quantities of energy from incineration, but, in doing so, it burns material that could be recovered and reused. 15% of the materials that we use in industry comes from recycling processes, while the other 85% is raw material. This is a long way away from the circular economy.”

15% of the materials that we use in industry comes from recycling processes, while the other 85% is raw material. This is a long way away from the circular economy.

However, the official statistics attribute your country extremely high recycling percentages.
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“That is because, statistically, energy recovery is included in recycling percentages. A smartphone that ends up in the incinerator is considered 100% recycled, but, actually, no material has been recovered. Another problem is waste produced in construction-industry demolition. It is over 90% recycled, however, it is not reused as construction material but rather to construct soundproof motorway barriers. Only 3% of cement is recovered. This means that 97% raw materials are used for every new building.”


Another problem is waste produced in construction-industry demolition. It is over 90% recycled, however, it is not reused as construction material but rather to construct soundproof motorway barriers. Only 3% of cement is recovered. This means that 97% raw materials are used for every new building.


In this critical context, what are Germany’s strengths?

“Without a doubt, its infrastructures in the waste industry sector. In the 90s, our country set environmental safety standards for incinerators so high that today those living in their vicinities have no related health problems. And the people accepted them, unlike what is happening in France and Italy, as far as I can see. Even I would feel safer living near an incinerator rather than any other type of industrial plant.

A further strong point are the waste sorting systems, which also handle biodegradable waste – still a problem for other countries. Specifically, Germans are proud of their waste sorting systems for handling packaging. Whether this always make sense or not is another matter. Monitoring is also quite strict, so our collection system does not involve illegality or dangers for the environment and health.”


And what does the future hold for Germany’s circular economy?

“A lot will depend on Europe and the circular economy package currently being discussed. Germany is continuing to display somewhat careful behaviour, considering it preferable to not set specific objectives before having clarified how to measure performances, for example, in terms of material recovery and reducing waste production. If Europe decides to set ambitious objectives, Germany will reflect on how to move forward. In any case, the question remains as to whether the circular economy is an economic or environmental project. We, at Wuppertal Institute, have performed a study on the carpet industry. This study proves that, due to the quantities of chemical product used to recover old fibres, the recycling process has a greater environmental impact than producing new carpet with virgin material. That is why it is of primary importance to set European guidelines for the ecodesign of products depending on the sustainable environmental recovery of materials at the end of their lives. I fear, however, that it will take us at least ten years to get there and that is too long…”


What do you think of the EU circular economy package? 

“… Next question, please. More than 1,200 comments have been filed by member states. Nobody knows how it is going to turn out. I am worried about the fact that we will have to reach compromises and these will triumph over the ambition of its objectives. Countries like Bulgaria or Romania cannot afford high percentages of material recovery, so the need to find a break-even point between them and Germany will reduce the drive towards significant amounts of recycling.”


In which European countries is the circular economy most developed? 

“Great Britain. They did not used to invest in waste management. They made wide use of landfills. Nowadays, they are considering whether to invest billions into incineration plants or to use the money directly to develop the circular economy. And it is precisely because their starting conditions are so negative that the British are so enthusiastic. While France is leading the electrical appliance and furniture sector. The law obliges producers to supply spare parts for a period of ten years from product sale. This measure has considerable costs. That is unthinkable in Germany.”


Moving on to more general considerations on the circular economy, you wrote that there are still questions to be answered and theoretical aspects to be investigated. 

“The circular economy is often wrongly associated with the chance to use enormous quantities of raw materials and material goods as we please, providing this occurs within this closed-cycle productive model, where materials are recovered. Actually, every extraction of natural resources causes irreversible damages to the environment. Furthermore, the idea that we can recycle anything is not true. There are inevitably qualitative and quantitative material losses in recycling processes. That is not all. For many materials, the treatment and recovery technologies are not yet available, and we should not take for granted that industry will adopt them. On these grounds, the first objective should be to reduce resource use as much as possible. This approach to efficient, rational use is not enough. The total quantity of raw materials that we extract from the Earth is growing exponentially. According to statistics, Germany has reduced this extraction, but at the expense of offloading the impact of production of goods which we use on the environmental balance of other countries. Vietnam, for example, supplies us electronic products with a high content in precious resources whose extraction has serious repercussions on the environment.”

The circular economy concept

Alternative approaches, such as the circular economy, zero waste, closed-cycle, resource efficiency, waste avoidance, reuse, and recycling pursue the idea of responsible treatment of resources, materials, products and the environment.


You also wrote that the theory of the complete closing of the circle contradicts the principles of thermodynamics. 

“According to physicists, entropy is not remedied via recycling. The chaos human beings create in the natural world through their actions cannot be cancelled, nor will natural systems return to the status quo ante with recycling processes.

Another controversial aspect which permeates the circular economy regards its compatibility with the high safety standards in force regarding waste. In the past, the priority was to develop technologies and processes that guaranteed safe waste disposal. Today the question is: do we want to continue to live without running any risk, or are we more interested in recycling as if there were no tomorrow because it is economically advantageous? A new balance must be sought and recycling is not the answer.”


Public institutions, industry, consumers: what role do they play in the circular economy?

“In the future, our basic need is for these different players to collaborate more closely together. Let us begin at ministerial level with those who handle waste management, those who handle consumer goods legislation, those who handle consumer safety and those who handle secondary raw material who all work separately from each other. The same thing happens with the European Union. The DG Environment endorses waste combustion in order to overcome our dependency on carbon and gas imports from Russia and other countries. At the same time, the waste unit believes that material recovery must have priority over incineration. Two opposite points of view within the same body. While the legislative frame remains so contradictory, the industry will not begin investing in favour of the circular economy. And it is still asking: let us know what we need to do with our waste first – should we burn it or not? Working in a team was not easy in the linear economy, but if we are going to move to a circular economy all the different elements must move in step with the beat.”


Even if the regulatory context is so contradictory, what should/could the industry do?

“If we really want to leave the linear economy, the business model we have to aim for is offering a service in the place of sale of goods. In the German automobile industry, the most important producers offer car sharing services, since entire purchasing categories in Germany, like the under-30s, no longer wish to purchase a car which has lost that status symbol aura. Sharing is the model which should be invested in. This is what the industry is thinking about. The problem is that investments supporting innovation grow stagnant, while we await clear law dispositions and regulations.”

Potential cost savings in the circular economy

According to a study by McKinsey (2016) on the potential of the circular economy in Germany, the costs of mobility, housing and food could fall by 25 percent by 2030.


Does this situation involve other countries other than Germany?

“The situation is extremely problematic in Germany. You see it from the reduction in the number of patents filed annually. In a certain sense, Germany has got by thanks to innovation and investments made in the waste industry in the 80’s and 90’s. We know fine well how to eliminate waste, but in terms of recovery and the circular economy we are behind. On the other hand, in southeast Asia the industry knows the context its moving in with a view to the future. And while Europe does not want to remain behind, it needs to adapt to the new priorities.”

Personally I am against offloading the responsibility on consumers.

What contribution can we give consumers? 

“Personally I am against offloading the responsibility on consumers. We need to consider the whole context. However, the criticism, for example, about buying clothes that cost next to nothing which need to be thrown out a couple of months later, is legitimate. The same thing is happening in Germany with the boom of disposable printers which cost 35 euros, i.e. less than the price of a toner. You use them to print, for example, invitations to your wedding or some event and they are thrown away after a couple of weeks when the ink runs out. Changing prevalent consumption models, preferring access to a service like car sharing over buying a car, sharing consumer goods… these are options which save us money. But in order to give up our routine disposable consumption trend we must reflect on our own behaviour models. It does not happen automatically.”


Published by Renewable Matter , edited by Silvia Zamboni.

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Henning Wilts, Germany on the road to a circular economy?   2016

Wuppertal Institut,

Top Image: ©Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy

The Dame Who Sank the Linear Economy

Ellen MacArthur

The Dame Who Sank the Linear Economy

Interview with Ellen MacArthur
How and why an experienced yachtswoman has become the icon of the circular economy. The story of Ellen MacArthur and her foundation, a truly global force to help the old economy’s transition.


Energetic, discrete, influential, outspoken, complex, Ellen MacArthur is the Dame of the circular economy. She convinced Google and the World Economic Forum that the linear model is over and that the way we produce and consume across the world can actually be changed.

Ellen MacArthur

Ellen MacArthur The Dame Who Sank the Linear Economy

Ellen McArthur was born 40 years ago in England. At the time, she didn’t know that her fate would be influenced by the most perfect geometrical shape: the circle. In the small Derbyshire village of Whatstandwell, far from the sea, she saved every penny to buy a boat. Her goal? Circle the globe, crossing the oceans as a yachtswoman. And that’s exactly what she did and better than anyone else. On 7 February 2005 she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, a feat which gained her international fame. It took 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes, 33 seconds to sail for for the 27,354 nautical miles (50,660 km).

In 2010, she decided to focus on another circle. She retired from her sailing career on September 2nd. She had something unique in mind: creating a foundation (today globally-known as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation) to work with business and education to accelerate the transition to a new type of economy. Designing a new model, where everything is regenerative and restorative at the very core. A system where no output is wasted, no material is worthless, where products enter a circle of reincarnation and transformation, using sustainable energy sources and impacting positively the economy. An economy shaped like a circle, a circular economy.

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Article by Renewable Matter, Circular Change Media Partner

Ellen and her foundation worked together to give this new model prominence, involving the World Economic Forum, big corporations like Google, Ikea and Banca Intesa. She partnered with consulting firms such as McKinsey and inspired thinkers and researchers. Waves never stopped her. Once you tame the oceans, nothing can stop you. So, she decided to do something even braver, to sail the Earth-ship out of the traditional, linear, petro-capitalist, economic model. And she might set a record too.

Renewable Matter reached her in the Foundation’s HQ in Cowes – Isle of Wight – to discuss the exciting future of the circular economy and her endeavor to achieve something no-one has ever been able to do and to understand how sailing solo can change the world.


Dame MacArthur, 6 years ago you started the EllenMcArthur Foundation, one of the most successful initiatives to establish a new industrial model, inspired by thinkers as Amory Lovins, Gunter Pauli and William McDonough.

How has this journey been and what is the aim of the Foundation?

“The aim is to extend the idea of a circular economy to the global economy. Our first step to success was to work on the circular economy and define it, trying to understand the circular economy as best as we could. It’s continuously evolving and we still only understand a very small percentage of what it really is.

But to understand the circular economy’s systemic nature and systemic mutation, we have to take into account raw materials, biological cycles, technology, the service industry and banking, it encompasses everything. Furthermore, it is fundamental to understand that a grasp of the circular economy is systemic. Once defined what the circular economy was we needed to take the idea out there.

So, over the years, we have introduced eight reports and three books on the circular economy. The first report, launched at the World Economic Forum in 2012, was looking at medium-complex circularity to more than one year and to less than ten. The top line figure was US$ 600 billion dollars worth of economic opportunity in 2005. The numbers were big, even if they were only looking at recycling 25% of products’ components per year. But the report was an epiphany and an eye opener, people really began to realize that it was indeed a real opportunity.

We then went on a second report, which was January 2013, looking the FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods). We discovered an economic potential of US$700 billion in the global market, not much harder not to achieve because the FMCG is much faster. We looked at the biological elements of food waste and plastic packaging as material with high potential. With the second report, we were invited to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. By year three, we had a partnership with the WEF. The third report, which was looking at how the global and economic value supply chains can become circular, was co-branded with the WEF. We had an impact on the global economy.”


Ellen MacArthur

“In the future, I see the Foundation continuing to work on education, with businesses, cities and governments, on communication and publications, accelerating ideas, and promoting systemic initiatives.”

And how did you evolve from there? Revolutionizing the global economy, I must say, is no small task.

“When we launched the Foundation we set out to work in three key areas.

First: working directly with businesses, looking at how they could become more circular. At the beginning we knew very little about that journey, we just had a vague idea of what success looked like.

Another area we wanted to work on was analysis insight: understanding the economic rationality.

The third area was looking at the opportunity through education for the circular economy. I stress this aspect in particular, as we do executive education.

“It is beyond just publishing economic papers: we show the value of the education of the circular economy. We do this education project to create real circular business leaders but also to provide an inspirational perspective, so that people can see there is a different way in which our economy can function, especially for young people, who are still in the phase of life where ideas are being imprinted. We receive fantastic feedback from them because suddenly there’s so much to be done, the more we do, the faster, the better we can get to a restorative, regenerative, powerful economy. We hope that in the future there will be a circular generation.”


What direction will your work take in the future?

“In the future, I see the Foundation continuing to work on education, with businesses, cities and governments, on communication and publications, accelerating ideas, and promoting systemic initiatives. Our view is that we will continue to focus on those five areas and push, as hard as we can, as we always have, as a team. Now we work in many areas: we have people in Brazil, the States, here in the UK, across Europe. We have a team in Brussels, India and China, looking at economic studies and building initiatives. Our work is expanding very quickly, it’s becoming global at a breathtaking speed I could not even imagine only three years ago. Just bringing those five things to a global level, in the way that we know it worked at the World Economic Forum, will entail a great deal of work ahead of us. It’s so complex that it’s impossible to say where we will be in ten years’ time.”


Yours is the most sophisticated and global observatory on the topic. Where is the circular economy establishing solid roots? 
“I would say it’s definitely more advanced in Europe. There are elements that occur in many countries, but an understanding of the systemic nature of this change, I would say it is more of a European phenomenon. Overseas, the market is beginning to kick off: we have a team in the US and we have incredibly positive conversations, we have global partners in the US. Emerging markets have also a huge potential in the circular economy. In the Western World, we have built the linear system, we have a linear production, a linear thinking, a linear design, it’s hard to get out of it. In emerging markets, you can escape the linear system. It would make much more sense to start from scratch and embrace the circular economy straight away.”


How are you pushing circular economy’s ideas in developing economies? Has the Foundation tried to lobby cooperation and development agencies, to have them bridging these models?

“We had many conversations with organizations such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and of course the World Economic Forum; we organized informal gatherings with the world’s economic leaders. We are targeting specifically Africa and the potential for its development, there are many conversations going on about circular economic benefits and there is a massive opportunity there. Once you realize how great an opportunity is, suddenly you are building an economic model which is restorative, which manages to keep products and materials with the highest recorded value. It’s not just containing the damage on a yearly basis, it’s like rebuilding a different model with massive economic potential. It’s going to be challenging, there are many barriers along the way.”


The EU has just approved a Circular Economy Package, with a set of policies allocating incentives to the industry in order to develop circular economy business models. Do you think we need more ambitious policies than these?

“It’s part of a process. We still know so little about the circular economy. As with policies, trying to do the right thing is actually incredibly challenging because the last thing you want to do is to put something in place, with the right intentions only to find out it generates the opposite effect. The circular economy is policy-relevant not policy-prescriptive. So policies can help, but they don’t necessarily have to define exactly what needs to be done. It will be trial and error, I’m sure, but what has been incredibly positive about the process with the European Commission is that it has shifted from being focused on simply waste to a real circular economy package, with systemic change and the launch of a public consultation last summer, which made a difference.

I think the Package has been a very successful start. Look at the feedback from businesses, cities, regions that have worked on this for many years, going back to the Commission after the first package, saying we need the circular economy to happen, not just waste management. I think we have a real opportunity to create an innovative legislation: both parties want to create the circular economy.”


Which EU country is the leader in the field?

“There’s a lot of work happening in Holland, for sure. Over the past 10 years they have been working with the government and the general public. In the Netherlands they have a slightly different and open attitude. Some of the challenges they had with the geography and the limited territory are indeed the reason why the circular thinking has gained momentum. There are some astonishing examples of industrial processes. But there are pockets in unlikely places. We worked for example with the city of Phoenix, or with Barcelona, places really forward-thinking.”


How can a city or a region become a circular economy leader?

“You need to involve all the stakeholders. When you are creating a systemic change, it’s not easy because you can’t do it alone, you have to do it with many other partners, you need to bring everybody to the table in order to create that systemic change.”


Many fear that the circular model might impact jobs. What does your research show?

“When we carried out the study on Europe, at the beginning of the public consultation [for the Circular Package], we worked specifically with the German Employment Economic Group, and we were specifically looking at what influence the circular economy would have on employment. Would employment rise or fall? Results showed that most probably it would have a positive impact.

Actually there would be less employment in the raw material industry but there would be more employment in the remanufacturing and service industries.

Take Airbnb as an example of the circular economy: you have huge hotels being built all over the world – it is a clear linear model and then suddenly Airbnb pops up, showing there is a lot of unused space in buildings that can be utilized otherwise. And through the IT digital revolution it unlocks spaces which were previously unavailable, almost impossible to find. Suddenly we have this visibility into spare space within the global economy. It could be spare materials, spare equipment, anything: suddenly everything has the ability to be connected. And this creates jobs. This is the time for the circular economy because we have the information technology that can help this. Five years ago we couldn’t predict what the digital revolution would have done for employment, suddenly the informal economy, the sharing, the circular are showing opportunities.”


Ellen MacArthur

Ellen MacArthur proposes a bold new way to see the world’s economic systems: not as linear, but as circular, where everything comes around.

How will trade change with the circular economy?

“If you look at small businesses trying to become more circular, providing a product-as-a-service, they might buy the product upfront from larger manufacture company, of course, but then they need a constant relationship with the manufacturer and the customers, as they might offer life extension services, or they might be able to remanufacture those products locally. Now in the traditional enterprise you buy the product and you sell it and then re-sell it. End of story. That would change because customers will not own the materials, they will only use it for some time. For the company, that piece of equipment will be ‘in someone else’s house’ for a while. Indeed for the financial sector this will be a huge change. Financial firms are trying to understand how a business that has adopted a circular model will unlock more economic potential and will set its revenue model. Just having the banking sector understanding whether companies are trying to get to its key, you have this huge big development of where value changes and who owns value.

“Having the finance sector understanding the difference between linear and circular is key.”


The Foundation carries out extensive research. Does it work with specific research centres? 

“We have 14 university partnerships, to support teaching and research in the circular economy, from London University to Bocconi University in Milan.

We are seeing growing interests in the research partnerships. Professors want to get involved, they see the opportunity, they want to understand the circular economy more deeply. We need to fathom the consequences of the adoption of such models, take Uber or Airbnb as an example. We are going to do things differently, we are going to find spare vehicles, we are going to find spare buildings, to remanufacture everything, and we need to find a way to utilize them, to benefit from these processes. We are building a picture of what the circular economy is, and the more we have of that picture, the more straightforward it would be for new companies, cities, regions to step in the circular space.”


How come that a record-breaking yachtswoman has become the icon of the circular economy?

“It was very unexpected; I never thought I would do this. All I wanted to do from the age of 4 was to sail a boat, and I spent all my free time thinking about sailing. For years, I saved my school money for a boat, I left school at 17 to become a sailing instructor, at 18 I set out for my solo round-the-world tour. Everything was about sailing, everything was about being at sea, everything was about finding a sponsor, everything was about getting out there and being on the water and I absolutely loved it. I still love it as much today as I ever did, it’s a massive magnet for me being on the sea. There was absolutely no reason to step out of that, I should still be doing it now. But then suddenly the penny dropped. You know, it’s incredibly difficult when you go to sea. Imagine to be about to go off today from Italy to sail around the world, nonstop, you would take everything you need for your survival. Everything. You have a boat, your little world, and you put everything on that, for your survival for the next 3 months, or 4 or 5, depending on how fast your boat is. Now when you leave, that’s it.

”When I finish my journey, I go back and I restock and I set off again.”

Your link with the land stop, and you prepare to be at sea for the full duration, if you run out of something, that’s it, you can’t stop and buy more, in the deep ocean you are 2,500 miles from the nearest town, five days away from everything, so you really are isolated and you really do develop a different way of thinking. You get used to it and you go into a different mode. And suddenly it dawned on me with the second round-the-world tour that our economy is no different than my boat. We have a world with finite resources: it’s absolutely no different from the boat. When I finish my journey, I go back and I restock and I set off again. But we cannot do that, we don’t have more resources, and it just suddenly hit me, and I knew nothing about the circular economy, I never heard the word, never came across the idea, I knew absolutely nothing. It’s what brought me to try to understand the global economy. I started reading every book I could, I met experts, scientist, economists, educators, tried to understand. If this current model that we use doesn’t work, what does? And initially you point to ‘we need to use less, we need to travel less’.

If we change the system, we can recover all the materials.

But then you realize that all of that is essential, we absolutely need to be incredibly careful with what we use now because we have finite resources. It’s not that we are going to educate every young person in the world, ‘we just need to use everything a little bit less.’ You know it doesn’t work, because we have desires. And then you start thinking ‘So what does work?’ And suddenly you see that if we change the system, we can recover all the materials, we use biomimicry design, sharing economy models – which brings the utilization of products to the highest level – and the performance economy where they were able to do the same with bigger products. Suddenly you see that systemic thinking can change everything. And it was the personal journey I went on that made me realize that the system doesn’t work, the linear economy doesn’t work in the long term. That is how I started to think, alone in my boat, about a new economy, which is able to be restorative and regenerative, to rebuild natural capital, which has basically degraded since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And now the race is on!”

Published by Renewable Matter , edited by Emanuele Bompan.

Renewable Matter


Ellen MacArthur publications,
Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

Connett: Creative Communities to Win the Waste Challenge

The Zero Waste recipe

Creative Communities to Win the Waste Challenge

Interview with Paul Connett
Here are the ingredients of the Zero Waste recipe: sharing and communicating good practices and achieved results to the community because examples are key. Avoid delegating research of solutions to sustainability experts, artists must contribute as well.
Renewable Matter

Article by Renewable Matter, Circular Change Media Partner

Paul Connett is considered the “father” of the Zero Waste Strategy, which regrettably often has become a slogan with no real meaning. We asked him to tell us what the state of the art of such strategy is, what its possible developments are and what the next steps may be. First – he says – we need to target the community, raising people’s awareness on the environmental and economic advantages envisaged by this strategy.


The Zero Waste Strategy is widely accepted by environmentalists but struggles to catch on. Why?
The key problem is the loss, or rather the absence, of political leadership. The Italian politicians that I meet, for example, always tell me that in Italy there is a cultural problem with the Zero Waste Strategy because Italians are not positive about it. Well, this is false: when two similar communities, three kilometers apart, have a markedly different separate waste collection rate, one of 17% and the other of 80%, the cultural aspect has certainly nothing to do with it, because the culture does not change within such a small distance. What can change is the political guidance.”
So, what needs to be done?

“We need to start from the communities, working with some ‘ingredients.’ First, we obviously need to implement separate waste collection, then we need to organize our community. But we also need creativity and the contribution of creative people able to find solutions. Not only that: we need to involve children who are creative par excellence and guarantee the future of the Zero Waste supply chain. Lastly, we need excellent communication. These are the ‘little pieces’ of the Zero Waste Strategy that can become collective knowledge and be shared through the Internet as well amongst various communities to solve problems.”

So, is a technological as well as sociological approach necessary?

“Above all a sociological one. Nowadays the waste issue is more sociological than technological: solutions lie in a better organization, a better education and only at the end in a better industrial planning. Then the waste issue must be seen in a wider context. This is just one of the pieces of what we need to tackle a whole series of problems linked to sustainability. There is a risk of catastrophic events, we need contributions from all disciplines – both science and humanities – to solve problems. We need agriculture, architecture, energy, community, industries. Obviously, they must all be sustainable.”

Paul Connett

Paul Connett is considered the “father” of the Zero Waste Strategy.

In other words, maximum interdisciplinarity is needed, isn’t it?

“Yes. More importantly, we should not confine our reasoning and delegate research of solutions to sustainability experts. We need the contribution of all disciplines, even if they are remotely linked to sustainability: not only economy, physics, and chemistry but also painting, music, and poetry. And there is a need for enlightened minds working in their fields on themes linked to sustainability. This is the biggest challenge we have to face since WWII.”

Is that all?

“Absolutely not. Besides that, there is also a very important psychological aspect: if we want to succeed with the Zero Waste Strategy it is necessary to involve from the start a large number of people. Indeed, as human beings, we need to see successful examples working as a psychological driver so as to activate new processes in other communities and promote the grassroots development of the Zero Waste Movement. When communities reach a good result – even with regard to separate waste collection – become themselves, with their pride, psychological drivers for other communities which may be near or far. Moreover, the success of the waste strategy can be useful to develop other pieces of local sustainability, within renewables and organic farming and so on. For example, we can use compost produced by a community in the fight against pesticides, GMOs and climate change. All this within the same community and sharing it with others. Leading by example is key in spreading the Zero Waste Strategy.”

In order to eliminate waste, we need to reuse materials from the separate waste collection, but often it is local committees that oppose new plants. How can we solve this contradiction?

“I think there is a need for grassroots initiatives. We need to know what the needs of a specific community are. Over the years, I have personally done almost 2,500 presentations of the Zero Waste Strategy to communities. Both to understand what communities want, and what they can do. I think that in the future there will be lots of friction. We must tell communities that on the one hand there are multinationals, whose target is to exploit the resources of the planet until they can, while on the other we have those who want to protect themselves, by defending such resources. Against this framework, we have to teach communities that they should not give others their resources, starting from waste which is a value that can create work and small businesses within the community itself. The same should be done with food. Italy is trying with the Slow Food movement, which is experimenting with short supply chains that are a perfect match for the Zero Waste philosophy and the emission reduction. Energy should also be included in short supply chains which must be decentralized and produced near the area where it is used. If all this is combined with this approach, possible resistance by local communities towards pieces of the Zero Waste Strategy can be defeated.”

Could you please give us a few examples, perhaps in different nations?
2nd Circular Change Conference

2nd Circular Change Conference

“Yes, but I want to underline the fact that it is not nations who recycle waste and set up Zero Waste Strategy: it is the community that we must observe, otherwise we start with the wrong approach. A solution found in a community may not be good in another, for instance for population aspects. In America, for example, we have to look at what San Francisco does and not at California or the United States. In Italy, we need to look at Treviso or Capannori, in order to find possible solutions. Let’s take the organic waste fraction as an example, in which three communities around the world must be carefully studied. I am talking about San Francisco, Milan and New York which are tackling this problem with a different approach, since these cities are very different from one another.”

When will the Zero Waste target be reached?
“Each community has its own timing. We can, though, look at what happened in the past. The Zero Waste Strategy started in Australia in 1996 when the government passed a law on waste envisaging their drastic reduction. Objective: zero waste by 2010. This was an important signal that reached California where a similar law was passed through which each community had to manage 50% of waste in ways other than disposing of it in landfills or incinerate it. After that, California reached 300 communities that achieved such objective, saving money. So, many people saw these results were possible and started to ask: ‘Why not increase the objective to 60, 70 or 80%? Or aim at the Australian one?’ Other communities such as that in San Francisco went from the ‘No Waste’ objective to the ‘Zero Waste’ one. It may seem a small change, but it is not. The second slogan communicates citizens the distance to the objective, thus making it more effective.”
Good. But where the Zero Waste Strategy is applied, how far are we from target?
“Nowadays, there are two places in the world where this strategy is in full swing. The first is San Francisco where we have over 80% of the separate waste collection, there is no incineration and we are moving towards 100% – that is Zero Waste – by 2020. The other – surprise, surprise – is Italy where there are the worst examples of waste management in the world, but also the best. Today, in Italy, there are over 1,000 communities where separate waste collection exceeds 60%. 300 are over 80% and some of these over 90%. And everything is achieved in very short periods of time.”
Italy at the helm of sustainability. Are you sure?

“Yes. Today communities need clean water, good food, high-quality agriculture, and life. Italy has all this and in abundance. From this perspectives, you are millionaires compared to the average US citizens; I believe in this, so much so that when they ask me where I would like to live I reply Italy. And all this without even considering the landscape, art, and cultural heritage. Not everywhere, to tell you the truth, but this applies to at least one thousand Italian communities. And this is no small thing.”

10 steps towards zero Waste

10 steps towards zero Waste

Good, but one the problems in Italy is work. Can the Zero Waste Strategy contribute to job creation?

“Yes, the Zero Waste Strategy can certainly offer many opportunities, much more than incineration that compared to that is a ‘black box.’ Let’s take, for instance, the sector of reuse and repairing. Today, in this sector, we already have work linked to maintenance, reuse and repairing and that can be increased. But we do not have people working on training people whom we could teach how to repair and reuse objects. Here is fresh work. Besides that, new jobs can be created reusing building materials, adapting it to new constructions. These are activities that in traditional supply chains do not exist, but which can produce new jobs. It is a network of supply chains with a flow which does not produce temporary work and thus job insecurity. A person with no training, for example, can start working on waste separation and then move onto repairing, thus improving their working position.”

Today there is a lot more scientific research on recycling and more generally on waste management compared to the past. Do you think we are getting there?

“I think so. Today, many researchers, scientists, and students deal with this, stimulated by the ten points of the Zero Waste Strategy. We need research, particularly in composting, reusing and repairing and in increasing waste separation in big cities. Not only that: we need to develop new systems to separate the residual fraction in a better way, achieving more recyclable material, and to eliminate as many toxic substances as possible, thus obtaining more organic matter, useful for compost.”

So, can research be carried out in systems only?

“There is a very important sector where a lot of research is needed: that of design. Products must be designed to be reused and recycled and the best minds available must be included here as well because it is a strategic sector to reach the Zero Waste objective. Here, Italy can play a crucial role because it has some of the best architects and designers in the world. I believe that if Italians cannot improve the design of an object, no-one else can.”


Published by Renewable Matter , edited by Sergio Ferraris.

Renewable Matter

Winners and Losers of a Circular Future

Those who will gain from the transition to the circular economy and those who will not. Obstacles to be removed. Factors to bet on.

The opinion of four Euro-MPs who, through an examination of the EU Package, is organizing this very important step.

Renewable Matter, Circular Change Media Partner

Article by Renewable Matter, Circular Change Media Partner

On the quest to develop a circular economy for Europe, leadership has now been passed by the European Commission to the Parliament and Council. With amendments drafted and discussions continuing in earnest, voting is due to take place in the coming months.

To gain a deeper insight into the priorities and objectives of the European Parliament we spoke with some of its most influential MEPs, spearheading work on the topic, including rapporteur on the Circular Economy Package Simona Bonafé (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) and shadow rapporteurs Josu Juaristi Abaunz from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, Piernicola Pedicini, from the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group, and Nils Torvalds from Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
Despite divergent political orientations, the answer to the key question of who or what stands to gain the most from the adoption of a circular economy comes back loud and clear: the environment, the economy, and European citizens. But, important details still remain to be clarified, including the means to tackle barriers to market access for clean tech solutions, such as subsidies for carbon-intensive sectors, and how best to establish targets and measures to help reduce, reuse and recycle products and waste, without distorting markets or impacting jobs and growth.
The challenge, facing these thought leaders, will be to strike the right balance between ambitious objectives for the economy, the environment and its citizens with pragmatic solutions which can be implemented at national and regional level. Together they aim to craft policy which reigns in older, resource intensive industries whilst enabling emerging sustainable, competitive ones. In this edition of Renewable Matter, they reveal some of their touchstones for delivering the economy of the future.
Simona Bonafè

Simona Bonafè, 
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)

Interview with Simona Bonafè,

Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)

Ms Bonafè is Rapporteur on the EU’s Circular Economy Package. In this role, Ms Bonafe is tasked with outlining Parliament’s position on the proposal and with representing MEPs during the trialogues with Commission and European Council. As MEP, Ms Bonafè is a member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee and a substitute member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy.

Who, in your opinion, will be the “winners and losers” in the transition towards a circular economy?
“I would start by saying that today, in Europe, with the current linear economic system there are about 600 million tons of potentially reusable waste that loses value and is completely excluded from the production cycle with negative effects both on industrial competitiveness and environmental sustainability. Through the promotion of reuse and recycling, we could move towards a production and consumption model able to turn these disadvantages into opportunities and benefits for the whole society. On the one hand, for instance, producers could benefit from cheaper raw materials and on the other, citizens would enjoy longer lasting products. Data provided by the Commission are clear. If we could obtain a reduction of productive factors’ needs, ranging from 17% to 24% by 2030, this would lead to a saving in the European industrial sector of 630 billion per year with a reduction of total greenhouse gasses of 2-4%.

On the one hand, for instance, producers could benefit from cheaper raw materials and on the other, citizens would enjoy longer lasting products.”

Simona Bonafè

“On the contrary, losers will be those who will not understand the innovative drive of a transition towards the circular economy. Probably they will not grasp it in the short-term, but in a few years they will see how consumers will prefer business models able to offer more reusable, repairable and recyclable products.”

Do you see a role for the bio-economy within the circular economy? If yes, where do you see links do you between the two systems?
“The bio-economy plays a crucial role within the circular economy. A more efficient use of urban waste could indeed become an important incentive for the bio-economy supply chain; in particular, I am referring to a sustainable management of organic waste, which could replace raw materials obtained using fossil fuels with renewable sources for the production of primary materials and products. To stimulate this model on a vast scale, and to promote the integration between bio-based industrial production and waste management, there is a need for a legislation on waste clearly setting out the objectives and resources required and evaluating how much public funding is needed to achieve them.”


“Consumers themselves will influence the material landscape by choosing to buy products and materials that could be recycled and/or reused, that last longer and that can be easily repaired.“

Simona Bonafè



The EU and Italy, in particular, is a world leader in developing and commercialising renewable, bio-based products – in an age of low oil prices and continued high subsidies of the fossil fuel industry what measures need to be put in place to ensure the transition away from a linear and towards a circular, renewable economy.
“In Italy, the bio-economy sector employs about 7% of the total workforce and constantly growing. These are encouraging data indicating the worthiness of the policies adopted in the last few years. The Collegato Ambientale (“Environmental Bill”) provides a further push in this direction. I am referring to the new provisions on green public procurement for public administrations, the national scheme on the environmental footprint of products or incentives for companies producing goods from waste recovery.
“The next step to take is that of using tax leverage more rationally, rewarding products with a higher ‘circularity index’.”

How, in your opinion, the circular economy can redesign the “material landscape” of European economies? Can we imagine different perspectives for the so-called “permanent materials” – like glass and metals – to effectively promote the closed-loop recycling?
“Consumers themselves will influence the material landscape by choosing to buy products and materials that could be recycled and/or reused, that last longer and that can be easily repaired.
“The Legislator’s task is to create a clear legal framework reflecting priorities of the waste hierarchy. This includes permanent materials which, thanks to their characteristics, can already adapt to the circular economy principles. Growth rates in this sector (for example aluminum), confirm once again how consumers favour such characteristics.”

Josu Juaristi Abaunz

Josu Juaristi Abaunz, 
Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left

Interview with Josu Juaristi Abaunz,

Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left

Mr Juaristi Abaunz is a journalist who was elected as MEP for the GUE/NGL group in May 2014. As MEP and member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee has worked on the circular economy, energy issues, radiation and transport emissions. Mr Juaristi Abaunz is also a substitute member of the Committee on Regional Development.


Who, in your opinion, will be the “winners and losers” in the transition towards an EU circular economy?
“Society, as a whole, stands to gain from the transition to an EU circular economy including citizens, business, the environment and public authorities. Moving from a linear to a circular economy will offer an opportunity to reinvent our economy, making it more sustainable and competitive. The environment will benefit as our resources will be enabled to re-enter the economic loop.
“Natural resources are finite, we are running out of them, and we need to keep in mind. In addition to this, the Circular Economy will create new business opportunities linked, on the one hand, to innovation and eco-design and on the other, to resource recovery and recycling facilities. Moreover, citizens themselves will benefit from the economic and employment growth and from the opportunity to live in a healthier and more environmentally friendly Europe. Nevertheless, I would like to underline that this will only be completely achieved by amending the current proposal, especially regarding incineration; as not only landfilling but also incineration plants are highly contaminating and are causing health problems. In our opinion, the final text should, therefore, narrow down the possibilities of the use of incineration to the minimum level, by measures such as banning the possibility of incinerating recyclables.

“However, we believe that transition should be without negative impact in the long run. It’s true that some business sectors might suffer from some short-term economic problems in the adaptation phase, but those will be compensated in the long run. Moreover, it must be noted that these companies will receive assistance in the transition.”

Josu Juaristi Abaunz

“However, we believe that transition should be without negative impact in the long run. It’s true that some business sectors might suffer from some short-term economic problems in the adaptation phase, but those will be compensated in the long run. Moreover, it must be noted that these companies will receive assistance in the transition.”

Do you see a role for the economy within the circular economy? If yes, where do you see links do you between the two systems?
“Both concepts are linked, of course. The economy is the response to the key environmental challenges that the world is already facing today. It is meant to reduce the dependence on natural resources, transform manufacturing, promote sustainable production of renewable resources from land, fisheries and aquaculture and their conversion into food, feed, fiber, bio-based products, and bioenergy while growing new jobs and industries. We propose that resources are managed in a way that preserves their value and energy, thereby enabling a circular economy as well as reduced costs for public authorities and minimised environmental and health impacts.”

The EU is already a world leader in developing the technology to make renewable, bio-based products but it sometimes struggles to commercialise these in an age of low oil prices and continued high subsidies of the fossil fuel industry. What key measures need to be put in place to ensure the transition away from a linear and towards a circular, renewable economy helping us meet our GHG emissions reductions targets?
“First of all, incentives should be given both to business and consumers to promote renewable and bio-based products. The creation of a secondary raw material market, with guarantees, is hence crucial to break the commercialisation blockade and access the market. Moreover, good product design and eco-design are a prerequisite to ensure a real transition to a circular economy; as it allows for embodied energy to stay in the system for longer effectively preserving the value of materials and enabling a circular economy that is resilient, creates local jobs and does not harm people. Where products cannot be reused, repaired, disassembled, remanufactured, recycled or composted they should be redesigned or progressively phased out from the market.
“Additionally, we can learn a great deal from examples of best practice. For example, between 2011 and 2015 the province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country almost doubled recycling rates in five years and made investing in an incineration plant obsolete. Gipuzkoa is living proof that a transition towards a circular economy system of resource management is possible.”


Piernicola Pedicini

Piernicola Pedicini, 
European Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD)

Interview with Piernicola Pedicini,

European Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD)

Mr Pedicini is a medical physicist and healthcare Director by background. As MEP, he is a member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee, a substitute member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and coordinator for the EFDD political group.

Who, in your opinion, will be the “winners and losers” in the transition towards a circular economy?
“EU citizens will be the main winners of the transition towards the circular economy in terms of better health and environment where we live. The benefits are several, starting from better information on the environmental footprint of products which would allow consumers to make informed choices.
“In a circular economy, plans of obsolescence are phased out and citizens will not end up with broken products just after the end of the warranty period. The circular economy will incentivise producers to design longer-lasting products which are easy to repair and recycle. The whole society will benefit from that as new green jobs will be created.
“Producers will also be winners in this transition as the circular economy will boost a market for secondary raw materials, creating better access and decreasing their production costs. I would say that the only losers in this process will be those companies who want to continue extracting and exploiting resources in a linear economy, such as fossil fuels companies.”

Do you see a role for the bio-economy within the circular economy? If yes, where do you see links do you between the two systems?
“The bio-economy sector certainly plays an important role in reducing Europe’s dependency on fossil fuels. Because of its potential, new technologies and processes for the bio-economy with a high sustainability potential should be promoted. The bio-economy can provide for resource-efficient products and materials which are key to a circular economy, for instance, sustainable wood can be used as a substitute for non-renewable materials.”

The EU is already a world leader in developing the technology to make renewable, bio-based products but it sometimes struggles to commercialise these. In an age of low oil prices and continued high subsidies of the fossil fuel industry what key measures need to be put in place to ensure the transition away from a linear and towards a circular, renewable economy helping us meet our GHG emissions reductions targets?
“In order to enable the transition towards a circular economy, the first most urgent measure to take is to eliminate all environmentally harmful subsidies, such as those to the fossil fuel sector as well as funds to incinerators.
“According to a study from the International Monetary Fund, in 2015, the EU spent €330 billion on fossil fuel subsidies. The same study highlights that eliminating subsidies in 2015 would help governments save €2,9 billion (corresponding to 3,6% of GDP), cut CO2 emissions by over 20% and reduce premature deaths due to air pollution by 55%, thereby saving 1,6 million lives.
“Other essential measures to ensure the transition towards the circular economy are targets and indicators to measure resource consumption and the carbon footprint of products. Ecodesign standards are also essential to ensure that all products are resource-efficient, easy to reuse, repair, recycle and dismantle. The current revision of the waste legislation will be critical to improving waste management and towards establishing a waste hierarchy.
“Measures to improve waste prevention and reuse activities are also needed, along with a progressive phasing out of incineration and of the landfilling of waste.”

Nils Torvalds

Nils Torvalds, 
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Interview with Nils Torvalds,

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Mr Torvalds is a Swedish-speaking Finn who has previously worked as a broadcast journalist and writer. As MEP, Mr Torvalds is a member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee and a substitute member of five other committees including those on budgets, fisheries and economic and monetary affairs.

Who, in your opinion, will be the “winners and losers” in the transition towards a circular economy?
“I wouldn’t pick ‘winners and losers’ as such in this transition. The concept of the circular economy isn’t actually new but is inherently logical: the need for efficient use of resources is still there, especially in a business perspective. All of us could benefit from a more circular way of thinking. We should, of course, bear in mind especially the administrative effects of the transition to a circular economy – it should be easy, not burdensome, to do the ‘right’ thing.”

Do you see a role for the bio-economy within the circular economy? If yes, where do you see links do you between the two systems?
“Most definitely. The meaning of ‘bio-economy’ is something that easily changes depending on who you ask – what is the bio-economy? There are a lot of technological (and environmental) breakthroughs out there, which are definitely contributing to the transition to a more circular economy. The link between ‘bio’ and ‘economy’ has been made, which many times can be beneficial. However, we should be careful about what we mean with ‘bio’ and what we use the brand for.”

The EU is already a world leader in developing the technology to make renewable, bio-based products but it sometimes struggles nevertheless to commercialise these. In an age of low oil prices and continued high subsidies of the fossil fuel industry what key measures need to be put in place to ensure the transition away from a linear and towards a circular, renewable economy helping us meet our GHG emissions reductions targets?
“Clear, long- term and stable frameworks – both political and economic – are essential. Because the legislative work is often slower than product or market development we, as legislators, have to be careful not to lock in solutions. This is, of course, demanding, as it is difficult to legislate for the future without exactly knowing what the future will look like.”

Published by Renewable Matter , edited by Joanna Dupont-Inglis.

Renewable Matter