Pandemic, war and climate crisis: the European circular economy does not take off

The data speak for themselves: between 2018 and 2020 the circularity rate fell from 9.1% to 8.6%. Italy is one of the countries that ‘holds’ and ranks first for the most important indicators of circularity, together with France.

Many raw materials are missing and, when they are found, the prices skyrocket. The responsibilities are various: the increase in demand, which is growing; the climate crisis, which decreases the ability of ecosystems to offer resources and increases some needs; the pandemic, which has brought a long setback to the global economy; the conflict in Ukraine, which has exacerbated Europe’s energy fragility. The solution exists and is called the circular economy. But it still doesn’t take off. The global data, from this point of view, speak for themselves: between 2018 and 2020 the circularity rate fell from 9.1% to 8.6%.

In the last five years, consumption has grown by more than 8% (exceeding 100 billion tons of raw material used in one year), against an increase in reuse of just 3% (from 8.4 to 8, 65 billion tons): we still waste a large part of the materials extracted from ecosystems. We have not reversed the course. Italy has also failed to achieve the goal of decoupling economic growth and the use of resources. This means that GDP and consumption of materials travel in parallel: the recovery of 2021 shows how the two values ​​are returning to the same levels prior to the pandemic.

Yet Italy is one of the countries that ‘holds’: in the context of the top five European economies, it ranks first for the most important circularity indicators, together with France. This is what emerges from the National Report on the circular economy in Italy 2022, now in its fourth edition. This is what emerges from the National Report on the Circular Economy in Italy 2022, produced by the Cen (Circular economy network), the network promoted by the Foundation for sustainable development together with a group of companies and business associations, in collaboration with Enea.

“There climate crisis and the dramatic events of the last two years, with the soaring prices of many raw materials, show that the time of waiting is over. The time has come to let European policies in support of the circular economy take off without further uncertainty, ”said Edo Ronchi. “Our economies are fragile because for strategic aspects they depend on raw materials located largely in a small group of countries”.

According to Ronchi “it is a knot that risks not only stifling the recovery but destabilizing the entire economy with an inflationary spiral. And it is here that the circular economy can make a difference finding within the country the resources that are increasingly expensive to import. The objective that Italy must set itself is to achieve the decoupling between growth and consumption of resources ”. Industrial symbiosis, explains the director of the sustainability department of Enea production and territorial systems, Roberto Morabito, “is one of the most powerful tools that we can use to support the circular transition of our production systems with great environmental, economic and social advantages”.

“As happens in other countries, it would be more than ever appropriate for Italy to have a National program for industrial symbiosis to maximize their potential and ensure traceability and accounting of the exchanged resources. The potential economic advantage for the exchange of resources in Europe is estimated at between 7 and 13 billion euros, to which more than 70 billion must be added for avoided landfill costs. Since 2010 Enea has developed a platform and a working methodology that have made it possible to carry out projects with over 240 companies and identify about 2,000 potential transfers of resources between them ”concludes Morabito.

Italy contains the damages

On average, around 13 tonnes of materials were consumed per capita in Europe in 2020. But among the five major economies at the center of the analysis of this Report (Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Spain) the differences are substantial: it ranges from 7.4 tons per inhabitant in Italy to 17.5 in Poland. Germany is at 13.4 tons, France at 8.1, Spain at 10.3. In 2020 none of the five European countries examined has seen an increase in resource productivity. In Europe in 2020, with purchasing power parity, 2.1 euros of GDP were generated for every kg of resources consumed. Italy has reached 3.5 euros of GDP (60% more than the EU average). The utilization rate of material from recycling measures the contribution of recycled materials to the overall demand for material. In 2020, the last year of available data, the rate of use of material from recycling in the EU was 12.8%.

In Italy, again in the same year, the value reached 21.6%, second only to that of France (22.2%) and more than 8 percentage points higher than that of Germany (13.4%). Spain (11.2%) and Poland (9.9%) occupy the fourth and fifth position respectively. Positive news for Italy also on the waste front. In Italy, the recycling rate of all waste has reached almost 68%: this is the highest figure in the European Union. Among the five economies observed, Italy is the one that in 2018 recycled the largest share of special waste (those coming from industries and companies): about 75%.

As for the municipal waste (10% of total waste generated in the European Union) the recycling target is 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035. In 2020, 47.8 were recycled in the EU 27 % of urban waste; in Italy 54.4%. Also in 2020, municipal waste sent to landfills across the EU was 22.8%. After Germany, the best performances are those of France (18%) and Italy (20.1%). On the other hand, there are sectors in which Italy is in clear difficulty. One is land consumption: in 2018 in the EU of 27 countries, 4.2% of the territory was covered by artificial surface. Poland was 3.6%, Spain 3.7%, France 5.6%, Italy 7.1%, Germany 7.6%.

We are also in the last places for eco-innovation: in 2021 from the point of view of investments in this sector, Italy appears in 13th place in the EU with an index of 79. Germany is at 154. Finally, the repair of goods: in Italy in 2019 over 23,000 companies were working on repairs of electronic goods and other personal goods (clothing, footwear, watches, jewelry, furniture, etc.). We are behind France (over 33,700 companies) and Spain (just over 28,300).

In this sector we have Fr.towards nearly 5,000 companies (about 20%) compared to 2010. Taking the sums, it appears that Italy and France are the countries that record the best circularity performances, totaling 19 points each. In second position, three points behind, Spain stands with 16 points. The circularity performance index of Poland and Germany is much lower, obtaining 12 and 11 points respectively.