The circular economy: a boost for growth

The take-away

  • The non-biodegradable products Europeans use and discard on a daily basis make up 70% of municipal waste. These could be a valuable source of raw materials.
  • Today’s rapid technological changes can serve as catalysts for a circular economy. The Internet of Things and big data are increasingly used to maximise products’ efficiency and performance.

Adopting circular economy principles could bring some serious economic benefits: it could boost the EU’s economy by €0.9 trillion by 2030, according to management consulting powerhouse McKinsey& Company and circular evangelist charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The European Commission agrees. It has calculated that a shift towards a more circular economy could save EU businesses €600 billion annually, boost the region’s international competitiveness, create jobs and also trim the bloc’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions by 2 to 4%.

The European Commission kick-started the transition with a circular economy package in December last year. It included measures like an EU-wide65% municipal waste recycling target by 2030, incentives for circular product design, the removal of legislative market barriers and funding for innovative technology.

“The circular economy agenda responds to one of our main future challenges— to do more with less — and represents a valuable opportunity to boost competitiveness, create jobs and generate sustainable growth,” says European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen.

Some innovators are already incorporating principles of a circular economy in their businesses. Whether or not they know it, anyone who has worn a Patagonia jacket, watched Caterpillar machinery at work, stepped on Tarkett flooring or used a Xerox photocopier has already been a part of a closed oral most closed technical loop, in which products or components are reused and remanufactured after extended use,then recycled as a last resort.

Prospecting for gold in urban waste

The non-biodegradable products Europeans use and discard on a daily basis make up 70% of their municipal waste. These could be a valuable source of raw materials when viewed as an “urban mine”. In the potentially lucrative field of e-waste, for example, the combined billions of cellphones used around the world make up an extensive urban mine at our fingertips. “This is far richer in mineral concentration levels than any ore for elements like gold,” explains Jaco Huisman, a scientific advisor to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.

Other materials found in e-waste are likely to be diluted, unlike high-concentration elements such as gold. Reclaiming them can be technically difficult and economically unpractical. This is a challenge for urban mining, which also includes the design of future products for optimal raw material reclamation.

It is something Huisman hopes to help change as a scientific coordinator for ProSUM, a 17 partner, EU/Swiss-funded project to prospect and map out Europe’s urban mine.

The project tracks Europe’s e-waste, batteries, disposed vehicles and mining waste to create a database similar to the one on primary resources. It aims to create an overview of Europe’s secondary raw materials, especially high-demand critical raw materials like Neodymium, which is vital for electric vehicles and renewable energy technology. “In e-waste, there are more than 58 different metals,” says Huisman. “If you want a circular economy, you need to know where they are precisely.”

The tech that empowers

Today’s rapid technological changes can serve as catalysts for a circular economy. The Internet of Things and big data, for example, are increasingly used to maximise products’ efficiency and performance. Platforms like Airbnb or BlaBlaCar make asset sharing easier. Virtual products and services like e-books and Skype are replacing their physical counterparts, and new tech enables more environmentally friendly manufacturing.

Last year, the Eindhoven University of Technology unveiled the world’s first ever modular car, an electric vehicle made from a novel bio-fibre composite. The Nova, designed to be a car for life, adjusts to its owner’s needs at different times. A click can change seat configurations or even the shape and colour of the car.

Perhaps more importantly, the new bio-fibre composite is strong, light, and more sustainable than traditional glass fibre-reinforced versions and can be recycled at the end of use. The resulting vehicle weighs less than 300 kg, which translates into an energy consumption equivalent to 800 km of driving on a litre of fuel with a combustion engine. At the Delft University of Technology, Future Energy Systems professor Advan Wijk is optimistic a 3D-printed, bioplastic house can be produced within five years. Van Wijk says renewable feedstocks like sugar beets canal ready be turned into bioplastics, used in a 3D-printed product and later re-melted for further 3D printing. “So we want to look into these energy and materials aspects: can we actually print it as a normal product?”, he adds.

3D printing a house still faces many challenges. However, the new manufacturing process also shows great promise, including logistical savings through the on-site printing of materials, reduced or eliminated waste, a shift away from using carbon- intensive products like concrete and the chance to close material loops by reprinting. “It is not only about certain materials, but about this additive manufacturing technology that can be used to reuse all existing materials, to bring them into a circular loop,” he says.

Van Wijk is convinced 3D printing technology has the potential to not just improve manufacturing in the future, but to redefine it completely. And although the technologies still require development, increasingly more circular adopters like him are building the case for changing outdated, linear ways of thinking and manufacturing.

5 concepts

Circular economy

In a circular economy, resources keep their value and usefulness at all times as they cycle through closed biological and technical loops. “Waste” finds a second purpose.

Urban mining

The process of reclaiming compounds and elements from used products, buildings and waste.

Secondary raw materials

Waste that can be recycled or reprocessed to generate raw materials again.

Cradle to Cradle

Design concept which aims to create wasteless material loops that positively impact the environment.


Closed-loop system for fish and vegetable production which recycles the nutrients (waste) and oxygen produced by each.

Circular economy in a few dates

1966 The first description of the economy in terms of limited material resources is published in “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” by British economist Kenneth E. Boulding.

1976 A report to the European Commission by Walter Stahel and Geneviève Reday envisions the impact of a looped economy.

1989 The term circular economy is introduced by British economists David Pearce and Kerry Turner.

2006 China writes circular economy principles into its 11th Five-Year plan.

2013 The Circular Economy 100, an alliance of global corporations, innovators and regions, is born.

2015 The European Commission adopts an extensive package to kick-start the EU’s transition towards a more circular economy.