Thirty-five. This is the number of legislative initiatives announced in the Circular Economy Action Plan, entitled “For a cleaner and more competitive Europe”. They are expected to appear between 2020 and 2023. Presented by the European Commission on 11 March 2020, this plan is one of the more obscure aspects of the Green Deal.  

In this context, from 2020, the Commission should propose the funding, via the European Social Fund (ESF+), of education, training and lifelong learning programmes for the development of skills in the circular economy. The Just Transition Mechanism and InvestEU should also contribute to this objective. 

Many sectors of economic activity have been singled out as priorities, including the textile, construction, information and communication technology (ITC), and battery production sectors. These should be the focus of specific strategies and legislative proposals aimed at developing resource maximisation and re-use. Concerning the agro-food industry, the “Farm to Fork” strategy, published on 20 May 2020 by the Commission, constitutes one of the pillars of the European strategy on the circular economy. 

The circular economy: creator of “green jobs”?

In its Communication, the Commission notes that jobs related to the circular economy grew by 5% between 2012 and 2018 to reach 4 million in the EU. It also highlights the fact that a widespread application of the principles of the circular economy in the EU could lead to a growth of 0.5% in gross domestic product (GDP) as well as the creation of 700,000 jobs. The widespread application of these principles throughout the European economy could also offer numerous advantages in terms of relocation of employment and the fight against environmental degradation. However, a brief analysis of the major obstacles facing the circular economy shows that the debate is, in reality, more nuanced. 

First of all, organising the widespread development of the circular economy in the EU would imply guiding the development of the European industrial base over several decades in order to have a coherent, comprehensive strategy, planned together with all the concerned stakeholders – first and foremost, the social partners and the national and local authorities. In fact, significantly developing recycling and resource maximisation implies modifying the whole chain of production, right from the design of the product. Apart from the cost of such investments and the question of the division of costs, the circular economy involves the development of clusters of interdependent enterprises. This implies that the bankruptcy or drop in productivity of a company constituting a “link” in the chain could destabilise the entire cluster[1]

Secondly, as long as the cost of the primary production of certain materials is less than that of recycling them, it is not very probable that this process will attract the interest of industry. Moreover, even if recycling increases dramatically across the EU, the circular economy will not be sufficient if demand grows exponentially. 

Thirdly, there are technological limitations to the widespread application of the circular economy. For example, certain raw materials are massively used in complex alloys and incorporated in a dispersive way into numerous objects (smartphones, for example). This makes the isolation and recuperation of these components technically very complex.[2]

The structural limits to the circular economy call into question its prospects for large-scale development. However, the opportunities offered by the legislative initiatives linked to the Circular Economy Action Plan, notably in terms of social dialogue, should be seized. For example, in 2021, the Commission should carry out an analysis concerning the possibility of introducing social and environmental requirements along the supply chain. Additionally, the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform should remain the main forum for the exchange of information and good practices between actors in the sector. In fact, in March 2020, BusinessEurope called for employers’ representatives from the concerned sectors to join the platform. The gradual implementation of the Green Deal should therefore give birth to new spaces conducive to social dialogue – and the social partners, in collaboration with civil society, should make the most of this. This investment in all new spaces of dialogue is also an essential condition for assuring a socially just transition. 

[1] Gelin R. (2019), Des limites de la transition : pour une décroissance délibérée, Couleurs Livres, co-édition GRESEA, Novembre 2019.

[2] Vidal O. (2019) Matières premières et énergie, les enjeux de demain. ISTE Group, décembre 2019.