PhD dissertation defence
On 23 April 2020, PhD candidate Leonidas Milios will defend his doctoral dissertation with the title: Policy Framework for Material Resource Efficiency - Pathway towards a circular economy paradigm.
The opponent will be Prof. Raimund Bleischwitz from University College London, United Kingdom.
Popular science summary
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution the extraction and use of natural resources has been rapidly increasing, without any sign of slowing down in the foreseeable future. In 2015, 92.8 billion tonnes of resources entered the global economy, and it is expected that material resource use will double by 2050, reaching 186 billion tonnes. This intense exploitation of the natural environment causes severe environmental pressures, such as climate change and the rapid decline in global biodiversity, leading to the destabilisation of natural ecosystems in which human existence depends on. It becomes all the more apparent that the present systems of production and consumption exceed planetary system boundaries and pose a direct threat to human development and well-being. For this reason, it is imperative to rethink the way products are produced, marketed, traded, used and what happens to them after use.
An alternative way of managing resources, away from the common practice of ‘take-make-waste’ approach which dominates currently all economic activities, is the so-called ‘circular economy’. A circular economy emphasises the reduction of the economy’s ecological footprint by lowering raw material use and consumption, minimizing the production of waste, and keeping the value of resources embedded in products for as long as possible. Conceptually, a circular economy aims at creating a more sustainable society by decoupling economic growth from resource consumption. Operationally, a circular economy promotes the more efficient use of resources by closing material loops with recycling, and slowing material throughput by keeping products longer in use; for example, through increased durability or repair.
In the European Union (EU), the strategic resource policy direction over the past twenty years has focused on increasing resource productivity and innovation in the economy, leading to the efficient use and secure availability of resources, to sustained economic growth and job creation, with overall decreased environmental impacts. In 2015, the EU introduced the Circular Economy Action Plan (COM(2015) 614 final), including a clear vision about the implementation of a circular economy in Europe, in which business will play a significant role by implementing circular business models that encourage prolonged use of products, components, and materials. Policy actors, at regional, national and supra-national levels, have also a very important role to play in this vision by laying down appropriate enabling conditions. Taking a step forward, the European Commission unravelled the new ‘Green Deal’ for Europe in 2020, including as one of its basic premises the promotion of the circular economy.
Improving resource efficiency and effectiveness through novel and circular business models is a difficult challenge that usually faces many barriers, of which policy and legal barriers play a key role. The overarching aim of this research was to identify these obstacles and produce viable solutions that would promote efficient and effective policies for resource efficiency based on circular economy thinking. Initially the research focused on identifying gaps in the current policy framework in the EU and investigating appropriate policy interventions. Using an interdisciplinary research methodology and based on case studies of Swedish firms with circular business models, by applying a bottom-up approach the thesis resulted in a revised policy framework for material resource efficiency.
The bottom-up approach is the novel element in this research, as it gives more insightful empirical evidence for the introduction of appropriate policy interventions. This means that in this approach only business inputs were taken into account for devising policy interventions, without taking into account the positions of policy officers, policy brokers and industry advocacy associations, which reflect also political interests in their agenda. This is a genuine ‘on the ground’ approach, reflecting
the views of business actors offering resource efficient solutions, which directly translates the practical problems of circular businesses to actual policy solutions.
A circular economy applies for all life-cycle stages of a product, from its production to the end of use. For this reason, the case studies analysed in this thesis include companies that are active in the design, manufacture, remanufacture, repair, resale, collect and recycle of products. Covering all product life-cycle stages, the research concluded in a revised resource efficiency policy framework that includes the following eight distinct policy measures integrated altogether in a policy package.
Eco-design for product durability, reparability and recyclability: Specific rules for including mandatory provisions of resource efficient design in new production. There are several ways to increase the resource efficiency of a product throughout its life-cycle, and since the design of a product has a critical role to play in its overall environmental performance, it is absolutely necessary that durability, reparability and recyclability considerations are taken into account at this early stage. Depending on the product group, certain properties might be more desirable than others (for instance durability vs. recyclability), so care should be taken in the introduction of such mandatory eco-design rules.
Product standards for reparability and standards for secondary raw material: The key to reusing products and secondary materials lie in the ease and reliability that these can be reintegrated in the economy. Standardisation can increase the confidence of economic actors to trust the performance and quality of second-hand products and secondary materials.
Circularity criteria in public procurement: The large purchasing power of the public sector can steer market developments towards more circular and recourse efficient solutions. By creating the appropriate market demand, governments create the necessary conditions for upscaling circular solutions that may or may not have diffused on the market yet. Public procurement is a strong pull mechanism in the context of product policy, and can be used in combination with eco-design and certification (standards, labels) to drive resource efficiency in product manufacturing and use.
Quality labelling for re-used products: A quality label can increase the confidence of a public or private consumer to trust and use second hand products. It is a complementary informative policy measure that can be used effectively in combination with a variety of administrative and economic policy measures for promoting circular economy.
National re-use target: This indicates a clear signal for a transition to reuse society, where products and resources are used as long as possible and their embedded value is maintained along the way.
Funding for capacity, technology and innovation development in recycling and re-use value chains: Funding mechanisms are key components of a holistic policy approach towards a paradigm shift. For increasing resource circulation and higher reuse and recycling it is imperative that appropriate infrastructure, technology and organisations are in place. In case private investment fails to deliver the necessary innovations, public actors are filling the vacuum by (ideally) forming public-private partnerships.
Support for resource and information exchange platforms: Exchange of information between stakeholders in a circular economy is considered paramount. Although the form, ownership and facilitation of such information platforms is not determined yet, the necessity of their existence is highlighted both by public and private stakeholders.
Ban on the incineration of recyclable waste: By eliminating the option of incineration, a number of mechanisms will be triggered for taking care of the excess amount of recyclable materials, which is currently treated as waste (e.g. plastics).
The analysis identified the conditions for better implementation of each policy measure individually, but also revealed instrument interdependencies within the policy package, and showed possible ways that would enhance the implementation of the policy framework. Based on theories of the policy process, a number of challenges were identified in the process of integrating resource efficiency policies in the current policy landscape, and potential future research directions were suggested to ameliorate the bottlenecks for a transition to a circular economy. Ultimately, the transition to a new economic paradigm, such as the circular economy, is not a straight-forward or rapid process. It requires a systemic approach that cuts across various components of society.