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Have we hit the limits of the circular economy?

How to regulate circular economy at the international level?

Catherine Chevauché, chair of the ISO Circular Economy Technical Committee
On May 10th, 2023 |
3 min reading time
Catherine Chevauché
chair of the ISO Circular Economy Technical Committee
Key takeaways
  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is planning a set of new international standards for 2024 to ensure the transition to the circular economy.
  • One standard will give the principles for moving from the linear economy to the circular economy: sharing and retaining value, minimising resource extraction...
  • Other standards will deal with the transition from a linear to a circular model or will provide indicators to measure the circularity of products and organisations.
  • The set of standards is aimed at all organisations, private or public, associations or companies, that wish to address these issues.
  • The European Commission is working on a digital product passport, which will provide information on the composition of the product or how to recycle it.

A set of inter­na­tion­al stan­dards is being pre­pared to pro­vide a clear def­i­n­i­tion of the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my, to set out how the tran­si­tion to this mod­el is to be made and to mea­sure its suc­cess­es. Cather­ine Chevauché is lead­ing the com­mit­tee devel­op­ing this set of ISO stan­dards to help organ­i­sa­tions make the tran­si­tion from a lin­ear to a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my. She has been work­ing for a long time on the con­tri­bu­tion to car­bon neu­tral­i­ty of indus­tri­al activ­i­ties, notably in the water and waste sec­tor, first with­in the Suez group and is now Direc­tor of Cir­cu­lar Econ­o­my at Veolia. 

When did this desire to apply standards to the circular economy come about? 

In France, it was in 2018 that the French Asso­ci­a­tion for Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion (Afnor) pub­lished a first stan­dard on cir­cu­lar project man­age­ment, on an exper­i­men­tal basis. Fol­low­ing this, France pro­posed to ISO, the Inter­na­tion­al Organ­i­sa­tion for Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion, to cre­ate a tech­ni­cal com­mit­tee to draft inter­na­tion­al stan­dards on the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my. At the time, I was respon­si­ble for cli­mate and the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my at Suez and I applied to head this com­mit­tee, which was cre­at­ed in 2019. Today, 96 coun­tries and some fif­teen liai­son organ­i­sa­tions (Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion, Unit­ed Nations Indus­tri­al Devel­op­ment Organ­i­sa­tion, World Cus­toms Organ­i­sa­tion, etc.) are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the draft­ing of these standards.

What framework is needed when we talk about the circular economy? 

Just as there are ISO 9000 stan­dards for prod­uct qual­i­ty, or ISO 14000 stan­dards for envi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment, we will have a series of 59000 stan­dards on the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my. The first one (59 004) will give the main prin­ci­ples that organ­i­sa­tions must inte­grate to move from the lin­ear econ­o­my (extract, man­u­fac­ture, con­sume and throw away) to the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my (avoid, repair, reuse and recy­cle): shar­ing val­ue, con­serv­ing val­ue, min­imis­ing resource extrac­tion from the envi­ron­ment, stay­ing with­in plan­e­tary lim­its, etc. And this applies to all organ­i­sa­tions, whether they belong to the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor, whether they are asso­ci­a­tions or companies.

Stan­dard 59 004 will pro­vide the main prin­ci­ples for mov­ing from the lin­ear econ­o­my to the cir­cu­lar economy.

A sec­ond stan­dard (59 010) will address the tran­si­tion from a lin­ear to a cir­cu­lar busi­ness mod­el, adopt­ing a part­ner­ship mind­set rather than tra­di­tion­al customer/supplier rela­tion­ships. The 59 020 series will pro­pose indi­ca­tors for mea­sur­ing and eval­u­at­ing the cir­cu­lar­i­ty of prod­ucts and organ­i­sa­tions. Final­ly, two oth­er stan­dards (59 040 and 59 014) will mod­el prod­uct sheets, which will pro­vide a bet­ter under­stand­ing of their com­po­si­tion in order to bet­ter recov­er and process sec­ondary mate­ri­als. All these dif­fer­ent stan­dards should be pub­lished in 2024.

How can consensus be reached between countries on these issues? 

It is essen­tial to ensure that the stan­dards are fair and rel­e­vant to all coun­tries. To do this, we rely on a bal­anced geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion of the lead­er­ship of the dif­fer­ent work­ing groups. One group is co-chaired by France and Brazil, anoth­er by Rwan­da and Japan, anoth­er by Switzer­land and Mau­ri­tius, etc. At each stage, we pro­ceed through con­sul­ta­tions and inter­me­di­ate votes. Of course, there are some­times com­pli­cat­ed arbi­tra­tions, such as on the issue of incin­er­a­tion with ener­gy recovery. 

But the com­mit­tee must act quick­ly to respond to the envi­ron­men­tal and social emer­gency. This is why we are work­ing in par­al­lel on these dif­fer­ent stan­dards, so that we can pub­lish them quick­ly and at the same time. Then we will have to look at the issues of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance with these standards. 

Is there an obligation to comply with these standards?

No, the adop­tion of ISO stan­dards is always vol­un­tary. But in this case, we can hope that many coun­tries will take up the issue, and we hope that the same process can be set in motion at Euro­pean lev­el. In any case, this work of reflec­tion and draft­ing is already forc­ing each of the play­ers to ask them­selves these ques­tions, to realise the impact of their activ­i­ty on the envi­ron­ment with­out for­get­ting its soci­etal impact, and, I hope, to act in a more respon­si­ble manner.

A dig­i­tal pass­port to prod­uct sus­tain­abil­i­ty com­ing soon 

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion has devel­oped an Ecode­sign Reg­u­la­tion (ESPR) to improve the cir­cu­lar­i­ty of EU prod­ucts, ener­gy per­for­mance and oth­er aspects of envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. In this frame­work, it is work­ing on the devel­op­ment of a Dig­i­tal Prod­uct Pass­port (DPP). This dig­i­tal pass­port will pro­vide infor­ma­tion on the ori­gin, com­po­si­tion, repair and dis­as­sem­bly options of a prod­uct and how indi­vid­ual com­po­nents can be recy­cled. This pass­port will be required for all prod­ucts placed on the mar­ket in the EU, includ­ing com­po­nents and inter­me­di­ate prod­ucts. Only a few prod­uct cat­e­gories such as food, feed and med­i­c­i­nal prod­ucts are exempt­ed. It will make it eas­i­er for stake­hold­ers in the whole val­ue chain (pro­duc­ers, importers, dis­trib­u­tors, repair­ers, recy­clers, con­sumers, etc.) to share and access this data.

Marina Julienne

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