No circular economy without product stewardship: theoretically, this could be the seemingly simple formula between producer, product, consumer and return to a recycling chain to realize a functioning circular economy. But as is often the case, practice is more complicated. Where does Germany stand in this context? What are the obstacles? What best practice examples exist? What should the next step toward a circular economy look like?
Those seeking more information about “product stewardship” will quickly make a find on the website of the Federal Environment Ministry. There it says: “An essential element of German waste management policy is the product stewardship of manufacturers. This approach aims to ensure that the conditions for environmentally sound waste prevention and recovery are already in place at the production stage. The aim is to design products in a way which
So much for the theory. It is clear, however, that in practice there are currently hardly any closed value chains in any German branch of industry that would fully comply with this definition. A current preliminary study by the German Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) states: “Germany must turn growth that is dissociated from resources and based on existing competencies and structural strengths into an international competitive advantage. Compared to some other European countries, the discussion on this subject is still in its infancy in Germany.” The authors of the study admit, however, that there is an increasing number of initiatives and actors in this country that are dealing with circular economy, but what is missing is a uniform, overall societal vision for the transition.
Studying concrete case reports can be a helpful intermediate step. In the detergent and cleaning agent industry, the Mainz-based company Werner & Mertz with its umbrella brand “Frosch” is considered a trailblazer in terms of sustainability. Last year, owner Reinhard Schneider received the German Environmental Prize. Already back in 2012, he launched a recyclates initiative with partners from industry, trade and non-governmental organizations. When asked for the reasons that there are still no closed plastic cycles, Schneider replies: “Until all or many manufacturers jump aboard the new reprocessing technologies that we provide, our material will still be a few cents more expensive per bottle than the previous one—deterring many from taking part.”
Despite similar setbacks, which need to be taken into account when switching to sustainable production methods, entrepreneur Alexander Hofmann is convinced that environmental protection “can achieve both global improvements and successful company development in the long term.” His Wiegel Feuerverzinken GmbH & Co KG, headquartered in Nuremberg, is a pioneer and role model in galvanizing steel. The group of companies does without leaded zinc and returns waste materials such as acid fumes to the production cycle. Consistent process optimization has led to a significant reduction in material usage and waste. Instead of using fresh acid, the company uses regenerated acid from waste incineration plants. Zinc consumption has been almost halved over the last 25 years. All Wiegel factories work without wastewater. Since 2014, the proportion of hazardous waste for disposal has been reduced from 70 to 3 percent. Remarkable successes, which the German Federal Taskforce for Environmentally Conscious Management (B.A.U.M.) has honored by awarding the B.A.U.M. Environmental Prize to Alexander Hofmann this year.
Anyone looking for further best practice examples in the field of product stewardship would do well to look beyond national borders. In 2019, the World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) in Helsinki, for example, offered an abundant array of projects and concepts ranging from the host country to Europe and North America.
A take-back system for online orders that, as is well known, grew dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis seems to be the way forward. The Finnish start-up RePack was inspired by the beverage deposit: when buying online, a surcharge for the packaging is charged. After receipt of the goods, the buyer can affix the enclosed return label to this packaging and—folded to letter format—drop it back into the letterbox. The deposit is then returned, as a voucher for the next RePack shipment. The mailbox as a new deposit machine, so to speak. The system, which was founded four years ago, is so successful that it is currently expanding to the U.S. and Canada.
Different industry, different country: the U.S. company Interface claims to have launched a zero-emissions strategy as early as 1994—at the suggestion of its customers, as the company emphasizes. Today, the decision is bearing fruit: the manufacturer is the first global flooring manufacturer to claim to be able to offer all its products as carbon neutral across their full life cycle. The company explains how this holistic approach—described by company founder Ray Anderson as the ascent of “Mount Sustainability”—has worked: an instructive guide inspires others to follow. Interface thus also provides eloquent testimony to the statement by Kate Daly, head of the US think tank “Closed Loop Partners”, according to which the U.S. alone could save two trillion US dollars if it were possible to use existing resources more sparingly.
Another think tank has focused on circular economic activity in cities and municipalities. The Collaborating Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP) was jointly founded by UNEP and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in 2005. Its Circular Economy Guide for Cities proves to be a real treasure trove for urban pilot projects in the context of circular economy.
Paris, for example, wants to create a district—”Les deux rives”—that is completely geared to recycling. Amsterdam aims to reduce the consumption of raw materials (minerals/metals) by half by 2030. By the same year, Slovenia's capital Maribor plans to recycle more than two-thirds of its household waste and 80 percent of its packaging waste—as a first step in the transformation to a Circular City. Just to name a few of the examples ...
But back to Germany and to the question of how the transition to a circular economy can succeed in the view of acatech scientists. Based on the tried and tested structures of German industrial clusters, the authors of the study propose to initiate “circular clusters” and to establish an independent operational unit to promote the topic across departments and policies.
The IFAT impact Panel Discussion, which was held online in mid-July, highlighted another important aspect in this context: the six-member panel from politics and economy agreed that the Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan to succeed urgently require legal regulations that are strong, intelligent and reliable in the long term. This in turn applies not only to Germany, but to all of Europe and—with regional variations—most likely to the entire globe.