The “IFAT impact Panel Discussion” gathered top-level experts from politics and environmental economics who discussed the links between COVID-19, the Green Deal and a consistent circular economy.
“The coronavirus crisis will pass, but the environmental problems will remain,” explained Stefan Rummel, Managing Director of Messe München, opening the digital IFAT impact Panel Discussion on “Environmental technologies in times of the coronavirus—and beyond: accelerators for an ecologically sustainable economy.” In her video statement, Germany’s Environment Minister Svenja Schulze expressed her optimism: “The Commission’s European Green Deal can restructure our economy to make the Europe of the future climate neutral, more resource efficient and more competitive.” Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, is also convinced of the Green Deal’s effectiveness as stated in his video message: it has the potential to decouple future economic growth from resource consumption.
The six-member panel from politics and economy agreed that for the Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan to succeed it is necessary to have legal regulations that are strong, intelligent and reliable in the long term. Dr. Christoph Epping, Head of “Resource Conservation, Circular Economy” at the Federal Environment Ministry pointed out that this would first require to determine who is responsible for closing the desired loops. “For example, should the car industry be obliged to use recyclates? Or should the public sector take responsibility? Or should the producers that market goods be made responsible?” Epping asked. While in Europe all these paths were conceivable, he believes that in other parts of the world—due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure—it would only make sense that producers take responsibility.
The importance of political initiatives and regulations was also underlined by a survey among the online audience: 58 percent of the participants rated them as the most important drivers of the environmental technology market in the coming years.
William Neale, Adviser for Circular Economy at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Environment, stated that he does not expect the COVID-19 pandemic to pose any significant obstacles to the political path taken with the Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan. Dr. Sebastian Porkert, Managing Director of Ecofario, a Munich-based start-up specializing in the filtration of microplastics and pollutants, evaluated the current situation differently—especially for young companies: “The coronavirus crisis has significantly slowed down green founders: on the one hand because the investment behavior decreased, on the other hand due to a lack of networking opportunities.”
Two further polls among the viewers revealed a varied picture of the pandemic’s impact on the environmental sector: 40 percent expect the coronavirus outbreak to have a positive effect on the demand for environmental technologies within the next five years (38 percent don’t know yet), while 39 percent believe that there is a “long-term relation” between the Green Deal and the EU's COVID-19 stimulus package—meaning that economic recovery measures will probably be implemented first before green growth is promoted (33 percent did not dare to make an assessment yet).
The discussants agreed that the implementation of the Green Deal can only succeed if all stakeholders—politics, the private and municipal sectors and the population—address the project's goals in a united manner. “The coronavirus outbreak has shown that joint action is possible in Europe,” said Patrick Hasenkamp. The Vice President of the German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) and President of Municipal Waste Europe (MWE) continued: “We must preserve this team spirit when restarting the European and national economies, taking into account the sustainability goals.”
For Peter Kurth, a central prerequisite for the change from the previous—largely still linear—to a comprehensive circular economy is the abolition of landfilling of untreated municipal waste in several European countries. “This must be the first objective of the current German EU Council Presidency,” the President of the Federal Association of the German Waste, Water and Raw Materials Management Industry (BDE) and the European Federation of Waste Management Industries (FEAD) emphasized. To stimulate the recycling market, Kurth calls for a legally prescribed minimum quota of 20 percent for the use of recycled materials in the manufacturing industry. For her company, Lynette Chung could not agree to this across-the-board demand. The Head of the Global Sustainability at Covestro, one of the world's leading manufacturers of high-tech plastics, rather advocated considering material-specific factors such as availability and financial viability as well as product properties and product safety for the respective quota.
One of the current technological opportunities for an even better use of resources in the future is the availability of data—William Neale, Peter Kurth and Lynette Chung agreed. “If we succeed in equipping products with a digital material passport, recycling companies can achieve better products,” said the representative of the plastics industry.