From local to EU-wide: building a strategic autonomy with a circular approach for the next EU mandate

By Axel Darut / Sebastien Bourdin, Advisor at the International Council for Circular Economy / Chairholder of the European Chair of Excellence on Circular Economy

The European Union is currently facing a critical moment, as it grapples with a triple environmental crisis: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. These crises, as highlighted by the Circular Gap Report, emphasize the urgent need for a shift towards more sustainable models of production and consumption. Our current reliance on a linear economic model of “take, make, throw” is pushing us further away from sustainability and exacerbating these crises, as evident from our unsustainable use of resources.

Simultaneously, Europe is confronted with unprecedented industrial challenges. The pandemic, economic disruptions, and the current unstable geopolitical landscape have exposed the weaknesses of our supply chains and revealed the vulnerabilities of our economic systems. These challenges underscore the importance of embracing the circular economy, not only to address environmental challenges and industrial needs but also to ensure strategic autonomy in the face of global uncertainties.

The circular economy offers a viable alternative by envisioning a system where resources are optimally and sustainably utilised, minimising waste, and maximising added value at every stage of the product life cycle. This paradigm shift has become a crucial factor in securing Europe’s industrial competitiveness while also addressing the imperatives of the ecological transition.

The success of this transition relies on the active commitment of local players: businesses, citizens, and municipalities. The latter play a fundamental role in implementing circular practices on the ground, demonstrating that the necessary systemic change can and must emerge from the bottom up.

The EU policies on circular economy pave the way for a sustainable internal market 

In 2020, the European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan to address this problem, highlighting four overarching objectives:

  • to accelerate the transition towards a regenerative growth model that gives back to the planet more than it takes.
  • to keep its resource consumption within planetary boundaries.
  • to strive to reduce the EU’s consumption footprint; and
  • to double its circular material, use rate in the coming decade.

The Circular Economy Action Plan has spurred a comprehensive framework of legislative and non-regulatory measures. This framework encompasses a spectrum of regulatory instruments, ranging from directives, mandating harmonised implementation across member states, to individual regulations targeting specific areas. The overarching objective is to foster stakeholder engagement, encompassing both businesses and consumers. These initiatives span the product life cycle, addressing upstream considerations such as eco-design principles, and extending to downstream aspects through sectoral policies that govern the operations of various industries. Collectively, this legislative momentum through the Green Deal is laying the foundation for a more sustainable internal market within the EU.

Closing the Gap: unlocking the full potential of the circular economy in the EU

Despite these and other important initiatives, what is missing in the EU’s approach to a circular economy transition is a direct focus on reducing material resource use through tackling consumption.

As underlined by Eurostat figures, in 2021, the European Union’s material consumption amounted to 14.1 tonnes per capita, which is double the sustainable consumption level and has led the EU to exceed the planetary boundaries for five impacts – particulate matter, ecotoxicity in freshwater, climate change, use of fossil-fuel-based products, and use of mineral and metal resources. Furthermore, a July 2023 report from the European Court of Auditors found that the EU is making plodding progress with regards to the circular economy transition, concluding that it is currently looking very challenging to achieve the EU’s ambition to double the circularity rate by 2030.

Current initiatives, while promoting a decrease in material resource utilisation, fall short of achieving sustainable consumption levels within the EU. Increased use of recycled materials in textile and apparel production, as envisioned by the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, could be negated by rising consumption patterns. Similarly, waste reduction targets, while effective in managing waste relative to resource use, do not directly address overall consumption.

From this perspective, early intervention in reducing material consumption is critical. Within the framework of a carbon budget constrained by cumulative emissions, prompt action on material reduction lessens the overall scale of the decarbonisation challenge. Crucially, we must avoid depleting our carbon budget while striving for net zero emissions. This necessitates a swift transition from an inefficient, resource-intensive linear economy to a circular model by minimising raw material extraction, extending product and material lifespans, and preserving their value at end-of-life.

A robust regulatory framework is essential to unlock the full potential of a truly circular economy, which transcends mere responsible waste management. This necessitates a comprehensive European resources framework. Furthermore, it entails implementing policies to ensure the upkeep, management, and improvement of Europe’s building stock, infrastructure, and access to materials and products. By adopting a circular economic model, alongside the enabling technologies, the bloc will bolster its material security and resilience against external disruptions. This transition holds significant promise for job creation, enhanced resource productivity, and reduced expenditure through extended product lifespans, minimised maintenance costs, and the mitigation of external costs associated with pollution.

Local solutions, global Impact – the critical role of municipalities in this EU Circular Economy journey

Municipalities play a crucial role in the transition to a circular economy because they are close to citizens, have knowledge of the local economy, and can implement policies tailored to the local context. Their strategic position allows them to drive significant changes in how resources are consumed and managed locally. To strengthen this role, our recommendations focus on developing local policies that promote circular practices in key sectors such as waste management, urban planning, energy, and support for social and solidarity economy initiatives. These policies must be underpinned by clear and consistent implementation measures that define the specific roles and methodologies to be employed. Adequate funding from the European Union is also essential. This will enable municipalities to establish the necessary infrastructure, promote innovation, and foster cooperation among local stakeholders. For example, EU funding could support the establishment of local reuse and repair centres, the development of sharing and rental systems to reduce the consumption of new products, and investment in clean technologies for municipal services.

Furthermore, close collaboration between municipalities and the EU is crucial for harmonising sustainable development goals and circular economy strategies at all levels of governance. This involves creating favourable regulatory frameworks, sharing best practices, and providing access to learning and experience-sharing platforms. To maximise the impact of EU funds, an integrated, multi-sectoral approach is recommended, ensuring that investments in the circular economy also contribute to other objectives such as combating climate change, promoting social inclusion, and strengthening local economic competitiveness. Ultimately, by placing municipalities at the core of their circular economy strategy, the EU can drive a sustainable transformation that benefits both the environment and society, while building resilient and innovative local economies.

For a systemic approach to circular economy policy for the next EU mandate

A swift and comprehensive transition to a circular economy should be at the heart of a rational industrial and environmental strategy for the next EU mandate.

The upcoming European elections provide a unique opportunity to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to implementing the circular economy on a large scale. This approach requires integrating the circular economy into strategies for biodiversity, climate, reindustrialization, and strategic autonomy.

The upcoming elections also represent a crucial moment to guide the Union towards policies that empower regional and local authorities to implement the Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan. This entails strengthening dialogue and cooperation among all levels of government – European, national, and local – and actively involving businesses and citizens in transitioning to more sustainable practices.

By providing targeted funding, training initiatives, and exchanges of best practices, the EU can expedite the implementation of circular economy projects that cater to the specific needs of each region. This reconnection between European policies and local actions is vital for realising the vision of a sustainable Europe, where economic prosperity goes hand in hand with environmental preservation and social well-being.


Axel DARUT, Advisor at the International Council for Circular Economy
Sebastien BOURDIN, Chairholder of the European Chair of Excellence on Circular Economy