The critical role of reuse in the transition to sustainable production and consumption

By Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe

It is today mainstream that an economic model based on linear production and consumption with decreasing returns in energy, financed by ever-growing debt is not sustainable. What many fail to grasp is that what this means in practice is that the era of unrestrained consumption is ending. We just cannot afford it, and neither can the planet.

So far, the strategy to improve sustainability has relied on stopping waste via collection and recycling. The EU is equipping itself with a good amount of policies to redirect waste away from landfills and incinerators and into the economy as secondary raw materials.

Recycling is indeed vital for our future and we need more of it; unfortunately, current recycling rates for plastic packaging are only 17%, for non-packaging plastic household products 1%, for textiles 1%, for electronics 5%, for biowaste 11%.

The challenge, however, is that even if we manage to exceed the EU 65% recycling target by 2030 we would remain far from the level of resource performance needed to meet the 1,5% target of the Paris agreement. This is due to the high turnover of our economy; consumer goods become waste so quickly that even if we could collect and recycle it all, the amount of entropy generated would still be exceedingly wasteful. For instance, PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the most recyclable and recycled of all polymers) loses more than 25% of the material in every recycling cycle. That is; after 3 to 5 cycles there is no recycled content left in the new PET packaging… and given the short life-time of a plastic bottle this means that in less than one month there is no recycled content left in a plastic bottle, no matter how well we collect and recycle it. Since 1 to 1 recycling is not entirely possible, new raw materials are needed for every new cycle and hence, in a stable or growing economy, the overall resource consumption and climate impact continues to increase. Circularity is important, but it’s not enough!

On the other hand, prevention and reuse systems for packaging, when well-designed, preserve 100% of the material way beyond 10 cycles (some can go beyond 100 cycles before losing value). A similar logic applies to other product categories; for textiles and electronics, given the amount of resources that go into its production, the best way to save resources is to make the product last for as long as possible, pairing it with a strong refurbishing and reuse network. Finding a way to recycle textiles and electronic equipment is key, but in terms of environmental and economic impact nothing beats preserving the use value of resources for as long as possible. Design for durability, repairability, reuse markets, etc. are crucial to make this a reality.

The challenge at stake is both technical and societal. It is technical because the transition requires changing business models, building new infrastructures and redesigning investment flows. It is societal because it requires changing consumption patterns.

The technical challenge can be addressed with the right set of policies and tools and is currently discussed in the policy-making with frameworks such as the Sustainable Product Initiative. The societal one, however, is so far ignored as a policy conversation despite the fact that it will be fundamental for the success of the Green Deal which is supposed to keep us below the 1,5 degrees warming limit. The internal market, which is after all a consumption-based mechanism, has been the driving force of European integration over the last decades. On the other hand, we as Europeans are going to experience important changes in the way we consume; with dwindling purchasing power caused by raising prices, buying a car, investing in quality clothing, lasting electric appliances or seasonal local food is becoming a luxury. In this scenario there are two possible ways for the European consumers; either a race to the bottom led by price which will impoverish us all, generating more dependency and waste whilst increasing emissions or a race to the top, keeping resources in the economy, creating local jobs whilst decreasing waste and emissions. The former is cheaper in the short term, but expensive in the long term, the latter is the opposite.

The latter scenario is obviously more desirable, but due to the fact that decisions on consumption are short-terminist, it will not happen unless it is given the right political priority and equipped with the adequate policy instruments.

The economy of prevention and reuse have always been neglected by EU policies, generally more inclined to optimise a bad system than to create a better one. Shared mobility, resilient food systems with reusable packaging, or sustainable textile business models are better for the planet and the people, yet they all imply a system change which will not happen as a natural evolution of the current linear system.

New infrastructure and economic incentives need to be designed and implemented urgently if we are to change the inertia that leads us to collapse. A more resilient, sufficient Europe that focus on the wellbeing of people is possible, but it will require keeping resources in the economy for much longer by placing reuse at the core of our priorities.