Circular economy

Introduction

In a circular economy, products and the materials they contain are highly valued. This contrasts with the traditional, linear economic model, which is based on a 'take-make-consume-throw away' pattern. In practice, a circular economy minimises waste through reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products.

Moving towards a more circular economy could deliver benefits, including reduced pressure on the environment; enhanced raw materials supply security; and increased competitiveness, innovation, growth and jobs. However, there are also challenges, such as finance, key economic enablers, skills, consumer behaviour, business models and multi-level governance.

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Materials

The economy uses raw materials which are either extracted domestically or imported. In a circular economy, raw materials can come from virgin or secondary sources secondary sources. More info: Material flows, Material stocks

Product design

Product design can contribute to a longer product lifespan and a more circular economy, thanks to ecodesign ecodesign and repair-friendly design. More info: Longer lifetime for products

Product use

To prolong and optimise product use, the shift from ownership of products to their usage (via rental, sharing or subscription models) should be considered. More info: Sharing economy

End-of-life

When they are discarded or no longer used, products reach the end of their life. In a linear economy, products become waste at this stage. In a circular economy, they can be repaired, reused, remanufactured or recycled. More info: Collection of municipal waste

Waste

In the EU, five tonnes of waste is generated per capita per year. From this, about a tenth comes from households. More info: Collection of municipal waste

Share

With a shift from ownership of products to their accessibility, more efficient consumption is possible. The sharing of goods (e.g. car-sharing or car-pooling) makes their use more efficient and reduces their environmental impact. More info: Sharing economy

Repair

Products are generally less durable and repairable than they were in the past. Enabling and promoting repair, for instance by making spare parts and information more easily available, can bring old products back to life.

Reuse

Products such as glass bottles can be reused a large number of times before being discarded.

Remanufacture

Products such as electronic goods can be rebuilt to the original manufacturer specifications using a combination of reused, repaired and new parts.

Recycle

Products such as metals, paper, glass or plastics can be recycled as a source of secondary raw materials.

Section 1

Materials

Material flows

The economy uses materials which are either extracted domestically or imported. These materials are processed to provide energy (for instance fossil fuels and food) and materials. Materials can either be consumed rapidly (e.g. packaging, newspapers or batteries) or kept longer in material stocks (e.g. electronics, furniture, buildings and infrastructure). Once short-lived products are discarded and material stocks are demolished, they become waste and may be recycled. After energy use (in the case of food and fuel) or final treatment (in the case of products), materials leave the economy as emissions and waste.

In the EU, roughly 1 gigatonne per year (Gt/y) of waste materials is recycled. This flow is modest compared to the 7.7 Gt/y of materials processed and 5 Gt/y of outputs.

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Imported materials

Imported materials: net imports of materials to the EU.

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Materials sourced in the EU

Materials sourced in the EU: materials extracted in the EU.

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Recycling

Recycling: waste treated to generate secondary raw materials, which can feed into processed materials.

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Materials processed

Materials processed: all materials used in the economy. This includes rocks, minerals, wood, fuels and food.

Construction materials

Industrial minerals

Waste rock

Metals

Fossial energy carriers

Biomass

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Material use

Material use: all materials not used to produce energy. This includes minerals and the small amount of fuels or wood used to manufacture products such as plastic or timber.

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Energy use

Energy use: all materials used for energy production. This includes fossil fuels and wood used to produce energy, as well as human food and animal feed.

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Short-lived products

Short-lived products: consumables typically used within a year, such as newspapers or packaging.

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Material stocks

Material stocks: products and infrastructure typically used longer than a year. This includes roads, means of transport (boats, planes, trains, heavy goods vehicles, and cars), buildings, furniture and other consumer goods. Materials may stay in stock for decades. Each year, materials added to stocks are about twice as high as materials subtracted from stocks. As a result, material stocks are growing.

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Waste

Waste: discarded short-lived products and material stocks. This includes municipal and industrial waste, discarded boats and vehicles, as well as construction and demolition waste.

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Material output

Material output: all wastes and emissions which leave the economy. This includes CO2 emissions and waste deposited onto land.

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The main challenge is linked with growing material stocks: Material stocks are growing at a high rate with net additions of 1.8 Gt/y (or 23 % of materials processed). Because of growing stocks, we would still need significant inputs from raw materials even if we recycled 100 % of materials discarded today. Material stocks are expected to continue growing in the coming decades and global material resource use is expected to double between 2010 and 2030.

Material stocks

Global Steel production

1040 million tonnes/year

93 Mt/y Cars and light trucks 9%
27 Mt/y Trucks and ships 3%
27 Mt/y Electrical equipment 3%
137 Mt/y Mechanical equipment 13%
150 Mt/y Infrastructure 14%
433 Mt/y Buidings 42%
134 Mt/y Metal goods 12%
9 Mt/y Packaging 1%
29 Mt/y Domestic appliances 3%
8 Mt/y Cars and light trucks 18%
3 Mt/y Trucks 7%
6 Mt/y Electrical equipment 14%
3 Mt/y Mechanical equipment 7%
11 Mt/y Buidings 24%
6 Mt/y Packaging 13%
3 Mt/y Domestic appliances 7%
5 Mt/y Other 11%

Global Aluminium production

45 million tonnes/year

Raw Material Supplies

The supply of raw materials is associated with risks, such as price volatility, availability, and import dependency.

The EU currently imports, in raw material equivalents, about half the resources it consumes.

The EU is particularly exposed to risks related to the supply of the 20 non-energy and non-agricultural 'critical raw materials' identified by the European Commission. Many of these raw materials are essential in high-tech products. China is the biggest producer of EU critical raw materials. Several other countries also have dominant supplies of specific raw materials, such as the USA (beryllium) and Brazil (niobium).

The map displays countries extracting at least 20 % of global production for a given material. The share of global production may not reflect actual imports in the EU (for which no comparable data is available). As a result, some countries from which the EU sources significant shares of critical raw materials may not appear on the map (for instance Morocco, which extracts 15 % of global phosphate rock production, and from which the EU imports 33 % of its needs for this material).

Click on a country to see details

China

Antimony

87%

Coking Coal

53%

Fluorspar

56%

Gallium

69%

Germanium

59%

Indium

58%

Magnesite

69%

Magnesium

86%

Natural Graphite

68%

Phosphate Rock

38%

Heavy Rare Earth Elements

99%

Light Rare Earth Elements

87%

Silicon Metal

56%

Tungsten

85%

Russia

Platinum Group Metals

27%

Turkey

Borates

41%

Kazakhstan

Chromium

20%

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Cobalt

56%

South Africa

Chromium

43%

Platinum Group Metals

61%

Brazil

Niobium

92%

United States of America

Beryllium

90%

Borates

33%
Section 2

Waste

Waste generation

In 2014, 2.5 billion tonnes of waste (or about 5 tonnes per capita) were generated in the European Union. While the greater part came from the construction (34 %), mining (30 %), and manufacturing (10 %) sectors, households represented 8 % of the total.

Of the 5 tonnes of waste generated per capita, 4.6 tonnes were treated.

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30%

Mining and quarrying

Materials moved to gain access to mineral resources, i.e., topsoil, overburden and waste rock.

Total does not add up to 100% due to rounding.

8%

Households

Household waste includes both mixed household rubbish and separately collected waste, such as paper and glass.

Total does not add up to 100% due to rounding.

19%

Other, including waste treatment

Materials discarded during waste treatment, for instance during sorting and recycling.

Total does not add up to 100% due to rounding.

10%

Manufacturing

Any materials disposed of during manufacturing processes. Manufacturing waste includes a wide variety of materials.

Total does not add up to 100% due to rounding.

34%

Construction

Materials discarded when old buildings are demolished or renovated, as well as material discarded during the construction of new buildings.

Total does not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Collection of municipal waste

Door-to-door collection implemented in EU Member States varies from one bin (only collecting residual waste and relying on bring-point systems for recyclables and bio-waste), up to six separate bins or sacks.

Strict separate collection usually leads to higher recycling rates. Among collection methods, door-to-door collection systems result in highest capture rates and yields of recyclables.

Click on a country to view the primary systems used in the country to collect municipal waste.