Consumers Can Be Enablers Towards More Circular Economy

Markku Anttonen, University of Helsinki, Consumer Society Research Centre

Circular economy has recently become a central mean to strive for ecological sustainability of our economic and industrial systems, both in political and expert discussions. European Union has accepted a circular economy action plan and Finnish government is aiming to be a forerunner in bio- and circular economy. In January 2018, the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra was honoured as a world’s leading circular economy public organization by World Economic Forum in Davos.

Even though the discussion about circular economy has so far focused mainly on transforming the industrial manufacturing system, the role of consumers in this change is seen important. However, we do not understand well enough how consumers understand and perceive the ideas of circular economy, and in what way they are present in the expectations concerning foreseeable future. Mostly, consumers have been seen as users of circular services such as sharing applications or circular business models like using refurbished products.

Therefore, we analysed the future expectations of consumers, and what these expectations say about circular economy, and how these are visible in the current European policies on circular economy. As a consumer data we used citizen visions on good and sustainable life in 2050, collected in the joint European research project Cimulact. Visions were collected using citizen panels from 30 European countries. We carried our vision analysis using topic modelling. For the content analysis of the policy programmes we included EU action plan and circular economy policies from Finland, the Netherlands, United-Kingdom and Scotland.  Finally, we compared the hopes and wishes of good and sustainable life to the aims and actions of the policies.

The vision data produced 10 topics, of which eight related to social issues such as awareness of economic and social differences, cultural and ecological progress, healthier food and lifestyle choices, ability to make holistic choices in life, equal possibilities to participate into social and political life, actions and the role of political institutions, and universal accessibility to equal rights and education. Only two topics had a strong connection to ecological sustainability and had notions on economic questions.  However, the most noteworthy finding is that energy as a primus motor or enabler of social development and wellbeing was the strongest topic rising from the visions, whereas the new sharing and other business ideas did not come up at all.

All the above issues, important to consumers, where not strongly present in the policy programmes. EU action plan as well as the national policies targeted waste as a resource and the new policy tools for waste management, bio-economy, resource wise industrial design and manufacturing, not to mention new economic policy tools for directing the transition towards circular economy. For example, the EU action plan focuses on efficient utilization of bio-based raw materials and diminishing the amount of food waste. Parallel to this the Dutch and Scottish programmes focused on nationally important targets, in the Netherlands the vast food industry and food export sectors, and in Scotland improving the circularity aspects of the whisky industry.

Our findings show that there is a lack of congruence between policy programmes of circular economy and the consumer aspirations on sustainable and good life. In consumer visions the social dimension is inseparable part of sustainability and good everyday life, whereas the policy programmes focused on industrial manufacturing, economic and juridical issues. If consumers are seen as progressives in transition to circular economy, the policy-makers should recognise the expectations of the consumer-citizens in future policies of circular economy.

Table 1. Ten citizen topics for circular economy

Topic Dirichlet parameter
1. Energy for society 29,001
2. Awareness of differences 3,767
3. Cultural and ecological progress 3,736
4. Healthier humanity 3,698
5. Holistic choices 3,620
6. Equal possibilities 3,548
7. Climate threats 3,543
8. Policy mission 3,439
9. Universal accessibility 3,381
10. Clean systems 3,048

 

Table 2: Circular economy priority areas in the European Union (EU) and selected countries.

Policy priority areas Targets and actions

Waste as resource

 

– Plastics: recyclability, biodegradability, presence of hazardous substances, marine litter (EU),

– Recovery of critical raw materials (EU)

– Increased recycling of municipal waste (Finland)

– Plastics recyclability (the Netherlands)

– Increased recycling of demolition waste (Scotland)

– Reuse of equipment from wind turbines and decommissioned oil and gas platforms (Scotland)

 

New waste management

 

– Recovery of valuable resources and adequate waste management in construction and demolition (EU)

– Moderating the decree of wastewater (Finland)

– Moderating recycling regulation (Finland)

– No landfilling by 2025 (Finland)

– Moderating the Municipal Waste Act (Finland),

– Household waste reduced radically (the Netherlands)

– Halving of volume of residual waste from companies, organisations, and governments that is comparable to household residual waste (the Netherlands)

– Water reduction targets (Scotland)

– More standard approach in recycling amongst local authorities (United Kingdom)

 

Bio-economy

 

– Food waste management (EU)

– Efficient use of bio-based resources (EU)

– Increased recovery of nutrients (Finland)

– Optimising use of biomass and food by closing loops (the Netherlands)

– Bio based plastics (the Netherlands)

– Food and drink, and the broader bio-economy (Scotland)

 

Resource efficient eco-design and manufacturing

 

– Shift from critical raw materials such as metals and minerals to generally available raw materials (the Netherlands)

– Minimising use of construction materials (the Netherlands)

– Encouraging manufacturing firms to adopt circular practices, including remanufacture (Scotland)

– Increasing resource efficiency in construction and built environment (Scotland)

– Eco-design standards across a range of products (United Kingdom)

 

Financial instruments

 

– Targeted outreach to help the development of circular economy projects for various sources of EU funding (EU)

– Financing innovative technologies to support a circular economy (United Kingdom)

– Introduction of differential VAT rates based on life-cycle analysis of the environmental impact or recycled content of products, and tax allowances for businesses that repair (United Kingdom)

– Remove trade barriers for remanufactured goods through trade negotiations, including pushing for them to be treated in the same way as new products (United Kingdom)

 

Reference

Repo P., Anttonen M., Mykkänen J. & Lammi M. (2018) Lack of congruence between European citizen perspective and policies on circular economy. Forthcoming in European Journal of Sustainable Development, https://ecsdev.org/ojs/index.php/ejsd/index.

More about Cimulact project: http://www.cimulact.eu/

More about topic modeling method: David M. Blei (2012) Probabilistic Topic Models. Communications of the ACM 55(4): 77-84. Doi:10.1145/2133806.2133826.

 

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