The circular economy in 10 questions

Towards a more virtuous model for people and the planet

December 2019

Agence pour l’Environnement et la Maîtrise de l’Energie (ADEME)

We buy a lot of things and keep them for less and less time. To make them, we have to exploit raw materials and resources that are becoming increasingly scarce. A lot of waste is generated and not all of it can be recycled, and when it is, not indefinitely. The pollution of our environment (air, soil, water, climate) is major. Since the industrial revolution, our economic model has been mainly linear: natural resources are extracted continuously and in increasing quantities to produce goods and services, consumed and then discarded at the end of their usefulness. Today, it is necessary and possible to change this model, by limiting our consumption, using as few resources as possible, reusing and recycling what can be reused, not producing to throw away quickly… We are thus moving towards a « circular » economy. This transformation is accompanied by numerous social benefits, with the creation of jobs and the development of local initiatives that strengthen the links between actors, everywhere in the territories.

To download : guide-pratique-economie-circulaire-10-questions.pdf (2.7 MiB)

1 - Why is our consumption pattern a problem?

We are living and consuming above the planet’s resources. We are consuming more and more and this model is less and less viable for the future of humanity. Advertising, promotional offers, fashion, constant technological developments in telephony and multimedia, etc. push us to renew our goods rapidly. In 2015, developed countries used 30 tonnes of resources per capita compared to 2 tonnes in developing countries. But these resources are not unlimited. In 2019, on 29 July, we exceeded the planet’s annual capacity to regenerate its resources and absorb waste. It would take 1.75 planets to meet the needs of humanity without jeopardising the needs of future generations. And if everyone lived like the French, we would even need 2.7 planets.

The outlook is not encouraging, since by 2050, the Earth’s population will have increased by 2.5 billion. At the same time, if nothing is changed, the world’s consumption of raw materials will rise from 85 billion to around 180 billion tonnes.

2 - What is the state of natural resource stocks?

Some resources are threatened by shortage Natural resources are widely exploited for the production of goods and services and are sometimes overexploited or even in a state of exhaustion on a global scale. Some have reached a critical threshold and their capacity to regenerate is compromised.

Looking ahead: consequences for the global balance

With strategic resources becoming increasingly scarce, the question of access and sharing arises. This scarcity will lead to volatility and higher prices for raw materials, but also to risks of instability, tensions and even geopolitical conflicts.

In addition, the exploitation of certain resources poses ethical and social problems. According to UNICEF, more than 40,000 children work in mines in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, many of them in cobalt mines, a mineral used to make batteries and capacitors for smartphones.

In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the massive use of water for the production of lithium (a metal also used in smartphone batteries) is causing conflicts with local populations, to the point of compromising their survival. Chile, for example, has restricted mining companies’ access to freshwater reserves.

3 - Can we reduce the environmental impact of products?

Ecodesign acts on the entire life cycle of a product

Saving energy and materials, reducing pollution, increasing turnover… Many companies are embarking on eco-design to improve the environmental performance of their products and services as well as their economic performance.

By choosing products that carry one of the 100 environmental labels recommended by ADEME, consumers can be sure that they are buying an eco-designed product.

All companies can improve the environmental performance of their products

Companies of all sizes and in all sectors can implement eco-design actions to different degrees:

A study by ADEME has shown the many advantages of eco-design for companies:

It is currently estimated that 19% of companies have taken steps to improve the environmental performance of their products and implemented eco-design actions, and that 9% are in the process of doing so. There is therefore a considerable pool of companies to be mobilised.

An example: the SEB Group’s eco-design approach

All manufactured products have been redesigned to be easier to repair and recycle, to integrate recycled materials and bio-sourced polymers, to replace contested substances, etc. The reduction of energy consumption and the carbon footprint during transport have also been taken into account.

4 - Can we recycle all our waste?

To be recycled, waste must first be sorted

In France, the material recovery rate for household waste was 39% in 2014, a rate that could be improved. The rest ends up in the traditional bin, then is incinerated or landfilled, and therefore lost to recycling. As for plastics, rates have reached a ceiling: only 20% of plastic waste is recycled in France, compared to 30% on a European scale.

Recycling is essential because it reduces the use of raw materials, but also saves between 60% and 97% of energy compared to a material manufactured with resources not derived from recycling. Hence the importance of sorting.

Household packaging waste is the main source of recyclable materials, with 3.3 million tonnes. This is followed by newspaper and magazine waste (1.4 million tonnes) and end-of-life vehicles (1 million tonnes). There are a number of organised recycling channels that perform well.

In 2014, France incorporated 17.5 million tonnes of recycled materials into its manufacturing processes. Recycled steel and cast iron account for 51% of materials used in production, recycled glass 58% and paper and cardboard 66%. However, the use of recycled plastic is hampered by both technological and economic barriers: its use rate is only 6%.

Not all materials can be recycled

Recycling has its limits, however, because not all materials can be recycled:

The case of the smartphone is revealing: nearly 50 metals are used in it, but less than 10 are currently recycled.

Recycling is not enough to meet demand!

For example, 53% of the copper contained in waste is currently recovered, which meets 15 to 17% of global demand. However, 100% recovery would only meet 37.6% of demand. Even with optimal recycling, we will still need to exploit more raw materials, especially if consumption continues to rise. In addition to recycling, other actions are therefore needed to limit our consumption of resources.

5 - Why is it important to make objects last?

Keeping objects for as long as possible limits the environmental impact

It helps to preserve resources and limit the amount of waste in our bins. But it is also an effective way of reducing the impact of manufacturing. For many objects such as furniture, clothing, computers and telephones, it is the manufacturing phase that has the greatest impact on the environment. In the case of the smartphone, it represents 75% of the impact.

Another benefit is that extending the lifespan of products allows savings to be made. For example, keeping a dishwasher for 14 years instead of 11 will save €105 for an A+ dishwasher, €150 for an A++ and €250 for an A+++.

In France, it is estimated that one out of every two appliances reported to the SAV is not broken down: no spare parts are needed to get it back in working order. It is, for example, a blocked pipe or a scale build-up… This is why it is so important to maintain your appliances properly.

In 60% of real breakdowns, the consumer does not try to have the product repaired and never does if the cost is more than 30% of the new price. Yet repair is often possible.

From 1 January 2020, a reparability index will be compulsorily displayed on 5 categories of equipment: washing machines, laptops, smartphones, televisions and lawnmowers. It will assess :

The reparability index, scored out of 10, will be calculated from the answers (yes/no) given to 10 criteria.

6 - Is obsolescence really programmed?

Programmed obsolescence is not widespread

We hear a lot about programmed obsolescence, which consists of deliberately reducing the life span and the duration of use of a good. This phenomenon, which has been considered an offence in France since 2015, aims to encourage the replacement of products, particularly for electrical and electronic appliances. In 2014, 92% of French people were convinced that household appliances were designed not to last.

In reality, programmed obsolescence is far from being a widespread phenomenon. On the other hand, another type of obsolescence has serious and very tangible consequences: cultural obsolescence caused by marketing!

A very real phenomenon: cultural obsolescence

Since the 1950s, the renewal of product ranges has accelerated, instilling in the consumer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better than the others. This subjective dimension, called cultural, psychological or marketing obsolescence, constantly feeds the feeling of having to buy new goods.

Fashions, changes in aesthetics, tastes, etc. push consumers to want the latest version of a product, even if the one they own still works, or to get rid of equipment as soon as a problem arises. For example, 88% of French people renew their mobile phone even though the previous one still works.

The result of this chosen obsolescence is that objects are being renewed more and more quickly, with major consequences for the planet.

7 - Can the circular economy make the world more just and inclusive?

An evolution towards more cooperation, solidarity and anchoring in the territories

In recent years, new forms of activity have emerged, notably with social and solidarity economy (SSE) enterprises. Their aim is not only to generate profits but also to give a large place to employees, democratic governance and responsible management. In 2019, nearly 40,000 establishments are listed and employ 2.37 million people, i.e. 10.5% of employment in France.

There are many initiatives throughout France

Repair Cafés®, collaborative repair workshops, are booming, for example. Free and open to all, they are run by volunteers who share their know-how and knowledge with people who bring in their broken items. By giving objects a second life, they help reduce the amount of waste, especially electrical and electronic waste. It is also an opportunity to raise public awareness of the environmental problems linked to waste and over-consumption and to create social links by promoting cooperation and solidarity.

In Paris, the Banque Solidaire de l’Équipement enables people in very precarious situations who have access to housing to acquire new equipment (crockery, furniture, household appliances, household linen, etc.) at very low prices. The bank operates through Emmaus Challenge, which receives unsold goods from large companies. Its employees are people on social integration schemes.

After equipping more than 1,000 families in Paris in three years, the aim is to replicate this initiative throughout France, thanks to the support of local community partners and businesses.

8 - Does the circular economy create jobs?

Its importance is real and the potential for job creation is significant

The circular economy can contribute to the competitiveness of companies and to economic development. Optimising the resources used is a source of savings and new business models are emerging.

Already today, the workforce in the circular economy is estimated at nearly 800,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs, or more than 3% of global employment. More than half are employed by eco-activities, the rest by repair, rental and the second-hand market.

It is estimated that the sector represents a potential of 300,000 additional jobs in France by 2030 (compared to a trend scenario), some of which have yet to be invented. Most of these jobs will be local, permanent and non-displaceable.

A wide variety of activities are involved, such as recycling, eco-design, re-use and repair. According to a European study, repairing just 1% of objects currently thrown away would create 200,000 jobs in Europe.

New skills are emerging

Among the emerging professions, we can mention the profession of product engineer specialising in eco-design. Its objective is to evaluate and design products and technical solutions that limit the environmental impact of products and services over their entire life cycle, while ensuring their industrial development.

In addition, eco-design requires increased communication and collaboration between the various business lines and departments of the company. The analysis of the life cycle of products and services implies close collaboration between the quality or environmental department (quality manager or environmental manager) and the design-production department (process and product engineers) and the marketing and sales departments.

9 - What actions should be taken to change the model?

The creation of a new production and consumption model depends as much on collective as on individual actions. Initiatives at all levels can provide answers for a more sober and waste-free society.

Ways forward for businesses and local authorities

Involving young people

In recent years, schools, colleges, universities and other institutions have been organising concrete actions: exchanging toys, setting up a composting system with waste from the canteen, collecting electrical and electronic waste, etc. Students are also getting involved! The French Student Network for Sustainable Development (REFEDD) regularly offers conferences and publications to make campuses more eco-responsible.

Many of the actions labelled « European Week for Waste Reduction » are also organised in schools and higher education institutions, showing the interest of young people and their teachers in building a more sustainable world.

10 - What to do as a consumer?

Consumers are at the heart of the circular economy and can make a positive difference through their behaviour. Each of us can take back control of the way we consume and avoid the accumulation of objects and a lot of waste.

Ask yourself the right questions before spending

Buying sustainable

Make it last as long as possible

Finally, sort all your waste

Our waste has value! For example, there is 100 times more gold in one tonne of mobile phones than in one tonne of ore. And there are recycling channels for many items.

If in doubt, the website provides all the answers. More than 850 types of waste and 50 000 collection points are listed. Simply enter an object or material, depending on its condition, to find out the best way to sort it and what will happen to it. Collection points in the vicinity are listed. Depending on the type of product, once it has been deposited at the collection points, it can be reused in various forms (clothing, furniture or electrical and electronic equipment, for example), recycled to produce raw materials or, failing that, recovered as energy.


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