Europe is bound to the rest of the world through multiple systems that enable two-way flows of materials, financial resources, ideas and innovation. As a result, Europe's economic, ecological and societal resilience is and will continue to be significantly affected by a variety of global and interdependent social, economic, political, environmental and technological trends.
Global material resource use in 2030, for example, is expected to be twice that of 2010 (SERI, 2013), while the most recent United Nations forecast suggests that the global population is likely to exceed 11 billion by the end of the 21st century (UN DESA, 2015). With 7.2 billion people today, however, the planet is already struggling to meet humanity's demands for land, food and other natural resources, and to absorb its wastes. Indeed, there is evidence that some planetary boundaries, which define a safe operating space for human development, may already have been transgressed. These include the biosphere's integrity, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, climate change and land system changes (Steffen et al., 2015).
The pace of technological change, particularly in the fields of information, communication, nano- and biotechnologies, is unprecedented. These innovations may help to reduce humanity's impact on the environment and reliance on non-renewable natural resources, but the uptake of new technologies is often associated with uncertainty and risk.
In the face of these challenges and opportunities, the EU aims to evolve its economic and social systems so that its citizens will, by 2050, live well but within the limits of the planet (EU, 2013).
A circular economy can contribute to this. Unlike the traditional linear take-make-consume-dispose approach, a circular economy seeks to respect planetary boundaries through increasing the share of renewable or recyclable resources while reducing the consumption of raw materials and energy and at the same time cutting emissions and material losses. Approaches such as eco-design and sharing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing products and materials will play a significant role in maintaining the utility of products, components and materials and retaining their value.
The benefits for Europe could be considerable, reducing environmental pressures in Europe and beyond and minimising the continent's high and increasing dependence on imports, which could potentially become vital as other regions develop and international competition for resources increases. Circular economy strategies could also result in considerable cost savings, increasing the competitiveness of Europe's industry while delivering benefits in terms of job opportunities.
The concept of a circular economy is relatively new at the European level, and its overall economic, environmental and social effects have yet to be fully assessed. The concept has its roots in sustainable development, and the term 'circular economy' has been used by countries such as Germany and China for a number of years. Some aspects of current policy development, particularly in terms of waste and new business practices in several sectors, are moving tentatively towards circularity, but not necessarily in a systematic or coordinated way. More information is needed to inform decision-making and combine thinking about environmental, social and economic impacts.
Inter-sectoral and political tensions are likely to develop in the course of a transition, as there will inevitably be winners and losers. While Europe remains a powerhouse of knowledge and innovation, some of its traditional businesses and their employees are likely to suffer in the transition to a circular economy.
The overall aim is to manage all natural resources efficiently and, above all, sustainably. The transition to a circular economy will be multifaceted and will therefore need to involve all stakeholder groups: governments, businesses and finance, civil society and citizens. It will require different business, finance and even fiscal models, together with technological and social innovation and the acquisition of new skills and knowledge through education. The European Commission's 2015 circular economy package (EC, 2015a) should play an important role in bringing this about.
In parallel with the need to increase understanding of the circular economy, it will also be important to chart progress and identify where more work is needed to achieve change. Some existing indicators are already useful, but others will be needed to help guide the development of supportive and flexible policies.
The transition to a circular economy will be evolutionary. Innovation and change will bring benefits but also create challenges. The development of complex plastics and alloys — increasingly used in electrical and electronic products, as well as in vehicles — is a good example. Science, businesses and governments are only beginning to understand how to recycle them, avoiding the waste of valuable and increasingly rare materials, while keeping potentially hazardous substances out of the biosphere, where they could affect ecosystems and human health.
The series of circular economy reports to be published by the EEA in the coming years — based on growing insights from science and innovation, as well as other knowledge sources — aims to support efforts to make Europe's economy more circular and thereby realise its full potential.