LIFE aids: A variety of projects are helping the EU to shift towards a circular economy

Source: LIFE

Brussels – Under a linear model, economic growth comes from a ‚take-make-consume and dispose‘ approach, which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheap to dispose of. By contrast, the circular economy concept involves re-using, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products, and resources are managed more effectively throughout their life cycle. Thus, under a circular model, economic growth and development are decoupled from the consumption of finite resources.

Moving to a circular economy is expected to bring new growth and job opportunities. It is estimated that measures such as better ecodesign, waste prevention and reuse could bring net savings for EU businesses of up to €604 billion, or 8 percent of their annual turnover, as well as reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2 – 4 percent. In fact, increasing resource productivity by 30 percent by 2030 could boost GDP by almost 1 percent and create 2 million additional jobs.

The LIFE programme is already helping with the transition away from a linear model: it has co-funded 661 projects related to the circular economy with a budget totalling over €1.6 billion (EU contribution €504 million). Many of these projects have tackled waste: 202 addressed waste reuse (total budget €525 million, EU contribution €173 million), 304 recycling (total spending €753 million, EU’s portion €210 million), and 126 waste reduction (total budget €246 million, EU contribution €89 million).

Waste targeted

  • For instance, ‚Plastic zero‘ (LIFE10 ENV/DK/000098) looked at how to prevent waste plastics made from fossil-based oil, save non-renewable resources, enable carbon neutral energy production from waste, and increase recycling rates. The project, which ended in August 2014, tested the collection and recycling of household plastics, as well as some construction waste and textiles. It diverted over 900 tonnes of plastic waste from landfills and incineration to recycling, as well as developing a digital road map for managing plastic waste that should benefit others carrying out similar projects.
  • Another example is ‚LOWaste‘ (LIFE10 ENV/IT/000373), whose overarching achievement was to inspire the creation of a local green district in Ferrara, Italy, based on circular economy principles. This consisted of waste operators, small reuse and recycling platforms, artisans and SMEs engaged in the development and manufacture of products from recovered materials. Local markets for recycled or reused material were established, both on the supply and demand side, to reduce urban waste. The project beneficiaries set up four consolidated ‚re-products‘ markets – for textiles, inert building waste (i.e. waste that will not decompose), urban furnishings and play equipment, and food residues.The project, completed in June 2014, reduced waste production in the district by up to 11.400 tonnes per year and helped preserve natural resources. The associated beneficiary Città Verde is continuing with recycling of inert waste, recovery of street furniture and play equipment, and composting of food waste.
  • Some ongoing projects are investigating other ways of tackling waste. ‚GtoG‘ (LIFE11 ENV/BE/001039), which runs until January 2016, aims to increase recycling of gypsum waste. Gypsum is widely used for construction in the EU and the industry generates some 1 percent of total construction and demolition waste. Only a small percentage is recycled, despite the fact that gypsum products are indefinitely and fully recyclable, mainly because buildings are currently demolished rather than dismantled. This hampers the recovery of gypsum waste. GtoG aims to show that deconstruction of buildings is economically feasible, thus enabling more recycling of gypsum waste. On top of that, the project is seeking to feed into policy by establishing criteria for determining when gypsum waste ceases to be waste under Directive 2008/98/EC and thus becomes a secondary raw material that can be reused.
  • Waste to energy helps to achieve quality recycling as it keeps harmful substances out of the circular economy, avoids landfilling and can produce electricity and energy for district heating. A number of LIFE projects are focused on this area. For example, ‚LIFE ECOdigestion‘ (LIFE13 ENV/ES/000377), which runs until July 2017, aims to improve the treatment of waste from the agri-food industry. The beneficiaries are looking to streamline co-digestion of this waste with wastewater treatment plant sludge, to neutralise the waste and produce biogas.

Improving resource efficiency

Resource efficiency has been addressed by 121 LIFE projects (total budget €287 million, EU contribution €102 million), whilst 79 projects have targeted ecodesign (total spend €168 million, EU portion €62 million).

  • For example, ‚LifeCiP‘ (LIFE12 ENV/FR/001113) is seeking to help SMEs in France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain reduce their environmental impact through the application of lifecycle approaches, including lifecycle analysis, ecodesign and environmental labelling. The project, which is due for completion in June 2016, is focusing on the construction, energy equipment and waste management industries. It aims to enhance resource efficiency in these sectors and reduce environmental emissions relating to their products and services at all stages (i.e. the extraction and treatm nt of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, the use and disposal of the product or service, and all intervening transport steps).

Circular economy opportunity

Five LIFE projects have focused on the circular economy concept specifically (total budget €8 million, EU contribution €4 million). There is great potential for more projects to be developed on this theme during the current funding period (2014-2020).

  • The recently completed ‚LIFE+ CEMs‘ project (LIFE12 ENV/UK/000966), coordinated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has developed a methodology and indicators that measure how well a product or company performs in the context of a circular economy. It is „the first instance where the concept of measurements in a circular economy is explored in detail“, according to the project manager Stuart Whitman, and enables users to estimate how advanced they are in the transition from a linear to a circular model.Project partner Granta Design has developed a tool which calculates the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) of a product based on its inputs. Such inputs include: whether its components are made from virgin, recycled or reused materials; the product’s lifetime and utility (taking into account increased durability, repair/maintenance and shared consumption business models); its destination after use (i.e. landfill, recycling or component reuse); and the efficiency of the recycling process. The resulting MCI has a value between 0 and 1; the higher the value, the greater the circularity.A prototypeof the MCI report is available through Granta’s MI:Product Intelligence software; it can be effectively integrated into design and ecodesign projects. MI:Product Intelligence can be licensed for installation on a corporate network. The software „allows the user to quickly compare different product scenarios and identify the most resource-efficient approaches“, according to Dr Ana Pereira, Research and Education Project Manager at Granta Design. Granta is currently trialling a cloud-hosted version. (More information on how to access the tool is available here.) „Subject to successful trial and adoption by Granta users, the MCI will become part of the regular product,“ says Dr Pereira.

More information on how the LIFE programme has contributed to resource efficiency is available in the publication LIFE and resource efficiency .