What is the circular economy? The Europe 2050 pathway


What is the circular economy? The Europe 2050 pathway

What is the circular economy? The Europe 2050 pathway

Climate change 3

A few weeks ago, in the article on World Environment Day 2021, we mentioned above a concept that has been gaining more presence in the measures taken by the European Union in terms of sustainability: the circular economy.

The time has come to delve deeper into this concept already mentioned and to discover what it is and what it is based on, as well as the state of the art in Europe.

What is the circular economy?

It is an economic model based on extending the useful life of products. With this, it seeks to break with the production system that human beings have been using since the Industrial Revolution. This is based on the extraction of materials for the manufacture of products which, once used, are discarded and disposed of. This formula is highly unsustainable, as it leads to the need to exploit natural resources to build inefficient elements.

The concept of "circular economy" was born as a response to the need to break with the traditional linear model of production, present since the Industrial Revolution.

Although the origin of the term has no defined starting point, it began to be applied to different economic models thanks to the dissemination and pedagogy of some scholars and companies. The schools of thought that have contributed to its dissemination can be consulted on the website of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, among which we find Regenerative Design, Performance Economics or Cradle to Cradle.

"Cradle to Cradle", written by M. Braungart and B. McDonough, highlights the concept of Cradle to Cradle. McDonough, emphasises the conception of the Earth as a biological system and not as an industrial system of mass production.

The theory explains that in a circular economic model there are two different types of cycles. On the one hand there are the biological cycles, where we find the consumption and production of materials that will eventually contribute to the creation of ecosystems, and the technical cycles, where we find the 4R model (reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycle).

What are the principles of the circular economy?

The aim of this trend is to extend the life of products by adding value to them for longer by reusing or recycling their materials to generate new products from those that are no longer in use. The aim is to create a material recycling system that contributes to less exploitation of resources and waste.

Every European consumes 14 tonnes of raw materials per year and generates 5 tonnes of waste. In total, the EU generates more than 2.5 billion tonnes of waste annually.

The Foundation for the Circular Economy is a private independent organisation which works to achieve the objectives of the movement by providing solutions for sustainability and sustainable development. It explains the basics of the circular economy:

  • Eco-conception. The manufacture of products taking into account their environmental impact in their manufacture and use in order to reduce them as much as possible.
  • Industrial and territorial ecology. Better management of natural resources and the energy needed for production.
  • Economy of "functionality". Changing the possessive mentality of human beings to one that understands products as a means and not as an end.
  • Second use. Adding value to products that do not correspond to the needs of consumers in order to reintroduce them into the economic system.
  • Reuse, of waste that can still have a second useful life in other products, which, for their manufacture, it will not have been necessary to make new ones, with the waste that this entails.
  • Repair, to try to give a second life to damaged products.
  • Recycling, of everything that can still be used among the waste.
  • Recovery. To take advantage of waste that cannot be reused, repaired or recycled.

On the other hand, the European Parliament emphasises the need to create this added value in products in order to increase their productivity. It highlights the organisation's fight against programmed obsolescence, because it follows principles that are completely at odds with those of the circular energy model.

To make a comparison with the business world, it is similar to the return on investment model, at which point a product becomes 100% profitable because the profits it generates exceed the initial investment needed to put it into operation.

As the Circular Economy Foundation, the European Parliament also identifies "eco-conception" as one of the foundations of this model and focuses on the need to work on product design, the production model and distribution. The use phase of the products also includes their repair and reuse, and then moves on to the phase of collecting and recycling their components, reusing only those parts that are impossible to recycle.

What is the future of the circular economy?

In 2019 the European Commission approved the Green Action Pact for an energy-neutral Europe by 2050. The origin of this pact responds to the need to put an end to the current consumption trend that predicts that by 2050 consumption will be equivalent to the production capacity of three Earth planets.

The measure to achieve this objective is a circular economy, which is why the most important measure is the Circular Economy Action Plan signed in March 2020, which updates the 2015 plan. The measures included in it are:

  • Make sustainable products the norm in the EU.
  • Empower consumers.
  • Focus on the sectors that use the most resources and have a high potential for circularity, such as electronics, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and housing, and food.
  • Ensuring that less waste is produced.

In Spain we have the Estrategia Española de Economía Circular, España Circular 2030, which aims to adapt the country to this type of economy by the indicated date and with the objective of the Green Action Plan.


  • Diario sustentable
  • Fundación Ellen MacArthur
  • Parlamento Europeo
  • Fundación para la Economía Circular
  • Comisión Europea
  • Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica y el Reto Demográfico

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