22nd Mar 2018


'Paradigm shift' needed for circular economy

  • Pietikainen says the circular economy requires rules (Photo: European Parliament)

Sirpa Pietikainen is going to buy a new smartphone soon because the applications on it don't function properly and it needs rebooting several times a day.

But the centre-right MEP from Finland has mixed feelings about the purchase.

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“I'm not going to buy a new phone because I want new glass; or because I want new aluminium; or because I'm craving for acrylic. I don't want new aluminium. I want to have a faster, better functioning telephone”, said Pietikainen in an interview with EUobserver.

“Because they need to sell new phones, the lifetime is shorter every year. My life quality is not better now that I'm buying a new mobile phone every third year”, she added.

Pietikainen's criticism of the phone industry's “linear” business model extends to the entire economy.

It is time to move towards a 'circular economy', she said.

Circular economy refers to a system in which materials are maximally reused, repaired, and recycled, and waste is reduced to a minimum.

On Wednesday (17 June), the European Parliament's environment committee adopted her report - "Resource efficiency: moving towards a circular economy".

'Strong signal'

The text calls on the European Commission to present by the end of the year an “ambitious proposal” on circular economy, and to propose a binding target to make the use of resources more efficient by 30 percent in 2030, compared to 2014.

The report is non-binding, but praised nonetheless by environmental NGOs as sending a “strong signal” to the commission, which indicated shortly after taking office it would scrap a legislative proposal on recycling and waste.

Will the commission, which has promised to publish its circular economy strategy before the end of the year, deliver?

It depends on who the commission listens to? Will it listen to businesses that think they will benefit from the circular economy, or to “those unprofitable coal mines”, who argue that new legislation is “destroying my business and the European economy”, said Pietikainen.

“Businesses need to change sooner or later. The longer you wait, the harder it is.”

The current way resources are being used in the economy is unsustainable, Pietikainen wrote in her report.

Paradigm shift

What is needed, is “a true paradigm shift like with Copernicus or Galileo Galilei”, said Pietikainen, referring to Polish and Italian astronomers whose ideas changed how the world is viewed.

“We are not in a neutral regulatory environment … Our regulation is always a reflection of our world view. If our world view has been 'abundant, without limits', our regulation is accordingly. It disincentivises these kind of resource-efficient ways”, she noted.

To counter that, the EU should “abolish all environmentally harmful subsidies” and make sure that EU funding is provided to the most 'resource efficient' projects.

Citizens also have a role to play.

We should eat less meat, buy more locally produced food and reduce food waste. And we should rethink if we really want to own a car.

“We need to change the pattern of ownership”, said Pietikainen, adding that the idea of owning things is “very territorial”.

“It's very deep-rooted in us. My phone is my phone, it's not a leased phone, no one can take it away from me. No matter that I already have three phones - as I do at home - that I don't use because they are all outdated.”

She adds that consumers can only improve their behaviour if the regulatory, legal and commercial environment allows them to.

“Voluntary actions and consumer awareness is important, but it’s not enough if you don't have good products to choose from.”

A case in point is the two 330ml plastic bottles of sparkling water Pietikainen grabbed just after leaving the parliament's committee room.

“I need to drink something”, she said, adding she would rather the parliament installed a water dispenser.

“Your life is not better if you can use every day 10 plastic bottles with water and throw them away. … We have to be aware why we make the wrong choices.”

Being green in the EPP

Pietikainen, who was environment minister in Finland in the 1990s, is not a typical member of the centre-right EPP group, the largest in the European Parliament.

One EP source called her “the greenest member of the EPP”.

“I wouldn't take the credit of being the most green”, she said, adding the 218-strong group has “a number of us who think very much in these lines”.

“I hope it’s gradually changing,” she says of those who have yet to be convinced.


Europe’s Kodak moment and the circular economy

If I were a business leader, I would be on high alert to ensure my company not become the cassette tape, correction fluid, or photographic film manufacturer of our time.

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