What if we told you that each European consumes, on average, 14 tons of raw materials and produces around 5 tons of waste per year?

It is crucial to invest in more sustainable ways of disposing of urban waste. The circular economy is a model that can solve a large part of this problem.

But what is the circular economy? And what are the advantages of this model for the current problem of waste production? Find out everything in this article.

What is the circular economy?

In 2014 alone, the European Union produced around 2.5 billion tons of waste. These data are presented by the European Parliament, which shows that the Construction area is responsible for 34% of this waste production and 8% is the value indicated for citizens' homes.

When it comes to urban waste, Portugal produced 453kg/capita that same year. Around 30% of waste was recycled or decomposed through composting and 49% was deposited in landfills.

In addition to waste disposal, there is the problem of extracting raw materials: in 2010, 65 billion tons of resources were extracted from our planet, according to data from Jornal de Negócios .

The circular economy, according to the European Parliament, “is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products, extending their life cycle.”

In other words, the objective is to reduce waste by trying, whenever possible, to keep the materials of a product, which has reached its end of life, in the economy so that they can be reused.

Briefly, this is the reorganized economic model based on the coordination of production and consumption systems in a closed circuit.

Graphic that reveals the circular economy model, in a closed circuit

Scheduled obsolescence

In opposition to the Circular Economy, there is planned obsolescence which is, in short, “when a manufacturer develops defects in a product so that it becomes obsolete on a certain date or after a certain number of uses”.

How often do you feel like you have to change your smartphone? Or buying new appliances? A study carried out by the European Parliament shows us the average life expectancy of a given product:

Table showing the average expected lifespan of a given product

This planned obsolescence contributes to the linear model of economy that is based on the extraction, production, use and disposal of products.

This model causes an increasing demand for natural resources whose extraction and use increases energy consumption and, consequently, the emission of gases with a negative impact on the environment.

In the following image it is possible to have a greater perception of the differences between the linear economy model and the circular economy model.

Infographic showing the circular economy model and the linear model

Increase the life cycle of a product

The same study advocates increasing the lifespan of products, in a circular economy context, and assesses this impact on society, economy and environment.

However, it is argued that a longer life for products should not be considered synonymous with the ability to value raw materials.

What are the advantages of this action?

  1. Sustainable use of materials: in a longer product life, the materials used and how their value can be retained must be considered (for example, through recycling)
  2. Lifelong knowledge and skills to maintain, repair and restore products
  3. Extended usefulness
  4. Continuous transactions: aim to make companies increase and strengthen the relationships they have with customers based on a collaborative economy

This process is part of the impact that can increase adherence to greater circularity.

The European Commission's new Circular Economy action plan

As a way of accelerating the transition to the circular economy in the European Union, in 2015, the European Commission outlined an action plan with 54 measures “to “close” the life cycle of products, from manufacturing and consumption to waste management and secondary raw materials market, and identifies five priority sectors to accelerate the transition along the respective value chains (plastics, food waste, essential raw materials, construction and demolition, biomass and bio-based materials).”

The European Commission has launched a new Action Plan for the Circular Economy - one of the foundations of the European Green Deal - which, based on the work that has been carried out since 2015, focuses on the design and production phases of a circular economy to ensure that resources remain in the economy for as long as possible. This new plan aims to:

  1. Promote sustainable product design as a standard in the European Union: products that are produced to last longer and are easily reusable and recyclable. This allows for greater restriction on obsolescence
  2. Give consumers greater ability to access information about products
  3. Concrete measures in sectors that use a large part of resources and that have the potential for greater circularity
  4. Ensure the reduction of waste produced

The principles of the circular economy

According to Circular Economy Portugal, the circular economy has three principles:

  • Regeneration of natural capital: promotes activities that interfere as little as possible with the ecosystem and defends sustainable economic growth
  • Close the cycles: to avoid waste
  • Systemic perspective: the economy is a system in which several actors interact and which is integrated into other larger systems. Therefore, the change from the linear to the circular model must take into account an integrated and articulated transformation of all elements

Advantages of the circular economy

The circular economy focuses on “maintaining the value of products and materials for as long as possible in the economic cycle” and has several advantages:

  • In favor of the environment: conservation of the planet's resources, reduction of waste produced and climate change
  • Increased competitiveness and innovation
  • Stronger customer relationships
  • Growth and employment
  • Longer-lasting and also innovative products
  • Greater security in the supply of raw materials

In addition, the European Commission highlights that measures to prevent waste and promote reuse can lead to savings of 600 billion euros and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2-4%.

The importance of the circular economy for Portugal

Portugal is characterized by having a cumulative materials economy, that is, it extracts and imports more raw materials than it exports finished products, leaving some materials accumulated in stock.

In 2017, the Action Plan for the Circular Economy was launched, which aims to put Portugal on the road to circularity by defining priorities, actions and goals to be implemented. Circularity is important in Portugal:

  • Efficiency, productivity and competitiveness in sectors with great potential: construction, agri-food, textiles, agriculture and forestry
  • According to the study “Circular Synergies – Challenges for Portugal”, if the non-urban waste eliminated in 2015 (1.1 million tons) were traded between companies this would have a reduction in intermediate consumption of 165 million euros, in the creation of 1300 jobs and the reduction of 5 million tons of domestic extraction of materials

In this way, “the circularity potential of many sectors in Portugal requires that R&I be the foundation and priority for this transition. Therefore, it is important to invest in R&I and develop new skills and knowledge that encourage, in a systemic and broad way, the transition of the economy and society towards circularity, competitiveness and resilience.”