Resource Conservation and Circular Economy

When seen in relation to the planetary limits of ecological burden, absolute raw material consumption in industrialised countries is too high. Facilitating sustainable consumption and production patterns and drastically cutting resource requirements is thus a key goal of global sustainable development. A circular economy is one possibility to decoupling growth from the consumption of non-renewable resources.

Sustainable production enables growth and resource consumption to be uncoupled

Worldwide economic growth and the consumption of resources are closely linked. Even if materials consumption is increasing more slowly than economic expansion, thus far the two have only been decoupled in relative terms and resource consumption continues to rise. To secure future prosperity, today’s production and consumption patterns must take on more sustainable forms and resources must be used and consumed more efficiently. These principles are laid out in the German Sustainable Development Strategy, for instance. The EU also prescribes correct handling of waste: avoidance of waste has priority over reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal. The Ecodesign Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive provide concrete product-specific regulations. Manufacturers in particular have a responsibility to use resources more sparingly and make products with longer lifetimes.

The economy of the future is circular

The circular economy is a key element in solving the problem of resource scarcity, as it links economic and ecological potential. In a sustainable circular economy, materials and substances are kept in use within products for as long as possible, can be reclaimed for future production processes and are thus not lost permanently as waste. This way, resources fed into the cycle therefore make longer and more frequent contributions to value creation within the economy – without burdening the environment through the withdrawal of new resources.

The challenge here is to view the life cycle of a product from a holistic perspective – from the initial design phase to production, its usage, through to the collection of the product at the end of life and finally feeding materials back into the cycle. To do so will require collaboration between actors as well as digital communication throughout the entire value creation chain. Decisions made as early as the design phase can have an impact on a product’s lifespan, its ease of repair, its continued use or reuse and its recycling compatibility.

Contribution by the Council for Sustainable Development

The German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) advocates a drastic increase in resource productivity and the development of a sustainable circular economy with a high recycling rate (going far beyond glass, paper and copper). To minimise absolute resource consumption, Germany will have to become a “raw materials country” by learning how to transform waste into a source of new resources that can substantially enhance resource productivity and make an international contribution to solving the waste problem.

Through its work, the Council gives impulses that shape resource policy and drive the development of a circular economy forward. In its recommendation for “Germany as a raw materials country” the Council describes its vision of recycling 100% of raw materials. Via a challenger report, the Council commissioned an expert assessment of Germany’s waste management framework conditions as well as its recycling quotas and targets. In 2017, the Council published a study on the potential offered by a sustainable circular economy, thereby demonstrating what opportunities exist in key sectors of the German economy for undertaking steps towards creating the circular economy.