The Push for Circularity: Historical Factors at Play in Europe
24 November 2022
As more emphasis is being placed on sustainability, the circular economy has become a trending topic. As expressed by the European Parliament, a “circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.”
While companies aim to be “greener” and steps towards reducing waste generation are implemented, there is still 2.1 billion tonnes of total waste created in the EU each year. As defined in Directive 2008/98/EC, the “waste“ in question is considered to be “any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard.”
While the amount of waste is cause for concern, the number does not stand alone and does not operate in a vacuum. Quite the contrary. Behind the scenes lies a complex, intricate system which feeds into such waste generation.
To understand the push for circularity and the implementation of a circular economy, one must first understand the current system. This includes both how it operates and where it came from in the first place.
This post serves as the beginning of a series about the circular economy within Europe. Historical factors will be examined to establish a base argument for the establishment of a circular economy. With this in mind, this blog post will cover the following points:
- Population growth within Europe and its impacts on the economy as a whole
- The change in demand and expectations from the market and
- The rise of consumerism
These components build up the present economic system. By analysing them, we can better understand the system itself. It can serve as a stepping stone for dialogue about the need for more sustainable practices and the necessity for economic change.
Population size is a major cornerstone for present-day waste generation in Europe. The current population lies at approximately 743 million people. When compared to the population in 1950 (549 million people) Europe now has 194 million more people. Economically speaking, this means that Europe now has 194 million more consumers engaged with the market today.
While more consumers may appear to be promising news for the European economy and its businesses, this population density also contributes to an even greater amount of waste being produced - more material being acquired and used to create consumable products means more matter which needs to be disposed of thereafter.
Yet, the size of a population alone does not contribute to Europe’s waste generation. The ways in which people interact with the market and what they expect are also crucial and must be considered.
Over the 20th and 21st centuries, the art of demand has seen a notable shift. Demand was once rooted in necessity. Now, it has transformed into a system more driven by desire and quantity. This can be traced back to not only more participants in the market, but also by the increase in disposable income over the years. For example, over the last century, the view of the role of the individual in relation to the market has experienced a major change in Europe.
Additionally, Europe has gotten wealthier. As noted in The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe, “Europeans are now enjoying incomes that are, on average and in real terms, about three to five times as high as in 1950”.
This has led to a higher standard of living and the corresponding inherent understanding and expectation to benefit from such a standard. This has also contributed to the transformation in buying habits and economic beliefs. In essence, this shift has given rise to the concept of consumerism.
When it comes to consumerism, Peter N. Stearns states in the book Consumerism in world history that the “demand for goods is mostly artificial in the sense of not corresponding with fundamental needs. […] [Along with other factors, the] sheer availability of consumer items trigger[s] an unquenchable thirst for more stuff.”
Furthermore, Mahwish Gul builds upon this train of thought stating that “the consumerist way of life is marked by constantly buying things, using them and throwing away what is no longer needed.”
Consumerism is, at its core, fundamentally unsustainable both operationally and environmentally as there are only a finite number of resources available. While consumerism may never truly dissipate, there are methods in which it can be chipped away at to both minimise its effects and to reframe the consumers outlook. For example, perceptions and attitudes are malleable and can be adjusted towards a more sustainable train of thought while still interacting with the market.
To create the road to circularity and a circular economy, an understanding of history is necessary. Europe has drastically changed over the last century considering:
- The amount of people now living in Europe has nearly 200 million more residents than in 1950.
- Incomes have increased per capita and the standard of living is higher.
- In combination with the other two points, the rise of consumerism has also contributed to how people interact with the economy, demanding more.
Together, these historical developments fuel the economy today. More people that not only expect more, but are encouraged to want more by the system itself.
However, these changes also demonstrate the fluidity of markets and attitudes. Looking at history shows that not only do people change, but so do economies. People can expect more, but a shift in how it is approached should be implemented - i.e., more sustainable methods to meet demand while minimising, if not eliminating, waste in the process.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. If you want to learn more, read the ebook here