The circular economy. An opportunity for engineering.

Joaquín de Hita

3 Jun, 2021


There is no choice. The linear economy model (extract-manufacture-consume-throw away) involves intensive use of natural resources and creates unsustainable pressure on the environment. Society is aware of this fact and the change of model is perceived as a priority, without being aware that in addition to contributing to the care of the environment, it is opening the door to the development of new business models, job creation and optimisation of the use of natural resources.

Moreover, as stated in the Government’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, the health crisis caused by COVID-19 has highlighted the need to accelerate the ecological transition as a key element in the reconstruction phase, and the circular economy is set as a lever for industrial modernisation.

The National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), the final version of which has been approved by the Council of Ministers on 16 March 2021, provides the guiding framework for the investment and reform agenda for a just environmental transition that develops the strategic capabilities of the green economy. The PNIEC is complemented by other plans and strategies being defined and developed in our country that constitute the general framework of the transition, including the circular economy strategy and its sectoral developments, the national plan for adaptation to climate change, the green infrastructure strategy and the new cycle of hydrological planning or the strategy for decarbonisation of the economy to 2050. All of this broad guiding and regulatory framework is key to implementing the European Green Deal, prioritising the ecological transition within the development strategy.

The Spanish circular economy strategy (Spain Circular 2030) was approved by the Council of Ministers on 2 June 2020, and its main purpose is to contribute to achieving a sustainable, decarbonised, resource-efficient and competitive economy. The strategy is expected to be materialised through three-year action plans that will include specific measures to implement actions in the circular economy, with the objectives, among others, of reducing the national consumption of materials by 30%, cutting waste generation by 15% compared to 2010. Increasing reuse and preparation for reuse by 10% of municipal waste generated and improving water efficiency by 10%.

The circular economy strategy is also framed by a number of policies of globally accepted international bodies, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the 2015 European Action Plan for the circular economy and the European Green Pact and new Circular Economy Action Plan for a cleaner and more competitive Europe. These policies are complemented by R&D&I initiatives in the field of these activities, as well as in the financial framework through the funding of projects fostering the transition towards the circular economy and the bioeconomy.


The strategy is based on a series of general principles that emanate from Community and national legislation (see Fig 1), from which a series of strategic guidelines are established, on the basis of which the specific actions that will make up the three-year action plans will be established. These strategic orientations are

  1. Environmental protection: Protecting the environment, terrestrial and marine, and its biodiversity, contributing to the fight against climate change and guaranteeing human health, making efficient and sustainable use of available resources.
  2. Product life cycle: Implement a life cycle approach for products, incorporating eco-design criteria, reducing the introduction of harmful substances in their manufacture, facilitating the reparability of the goods produced and their reuse, prolonging their useful life and enabling their recovery at the end of this, in short, maintaining the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible.
  3. Waste hierarchy: Effective application of the principle of waste hierarchy, promoting the prevention of waste generation, encouraging the preparation for reuse, strengthening recycling, recovering energetically or in other ways, those wastes that cannot be recycled and favouring their traceability, reducing the abandonment of waste in the environment and its arrival in the sea.
  4. Reduction of food waste: To reduce food waste in order to reduce the environmental and economic impact of resource consumption and to promote a more equitable distribution of resources.
  5. Efficiency in production: Introducing guidelines that increase innovation and the overall efficiency of production processes, through the use of digital infrastructures and services, as well as the adoption of measures such as the implementation of environmental management systems, thus boosting competitiveness and sustainable business growth.
  6. Sustainable consumption: Promote innovative models of sustainable and responsible consumption, including products and services, as well as the use of digital infrastructures and services, based on the transparency of information on the characteristics of goods and services, their durability, reparability and energy efficiency, through the use of measures such as the use of eco-labels.
  7. Awareness-raising and communication: Spreading the importance of adopting a circular economy, promoting and facilitating the creation of appropriate channels for coordination between administrations and for exchanging information between them and economic and social agents, the scientific and technological community, so as to create synergies that favour the transition.
  8. Employment for the circular economy: Consolidate employment policies that favour a fair and supportive transition towards a circular economy, identifying new sources of employment and facilitating the creation of capacities for them.
  9. Research and innovation: Promote research and innovation in both the public and business sectors, and especially in terms of public-private collaboration, as drivers of change and transition towards a sustainable productive and social model, facilitating the generation of knowledge, its transfer and the adoption of new technologies.
  10. Indicators: Promote the use of common, transparent and accessible indicators that make it possible to ascertain the degree of implementation of the circular economy, especially its social and environmental impact.

The main lines of action on which the policies and instruments of the Circular Economy Strategy will focus are as follows:

Production: from the conception of products, their design, to their manufacture, it can be made easier for them to be more easily repairable, have a longer useful life, be upgradable and, when they reach the end of their useful life, generate less waste or, where appropriate, be easily recyclable and, of course, not contain harmful substances.

Consumption: reversing the current trend of over-consumption of products to a more responsible consumption model, including access to services, is a prerequisite for progress in preventing and reducing waste generation and, where appropriate, promoting quality recycling.

Waste management: in a global context where raw materials are increasingly scarce and expensive, recycling only 37.1% of the waste generated is a waste of available resources; a step forward in recovery and recycling must be taken.

Secondary raw materials: the use of secondary raw materials will allow for a more sustainable use of natural resources, as well as building consumer confidence in responsible consumption patterns.

Water reuse and purification: this is incorporated as a singular axis due to the importance of water in the Iberian Peninsula.

In addition, the following lines of action are incorporated as cross-cutting issues:

Awareness-raising and participation: due to the special importance of citizen involvement in the progress towards a circular economy.

Research, innovation and competitiveness: research, innovation and competitiveness policies carry a great deal of weight in the Strategy, which is why it is considered important to assign them a section of their own.

Employment and training: Special policies for training, qualification and job creation and the improvement of existing jobs will be defined.

Priority action is planned for a series of economic sectors, which are those in which the strategy may represent a greater potential for improvement or a faster response to the measures to be implemented. These sectors are:

Construction: in which 40% of waste is concentrated and which emits 35% of greenhouse gases.

Agri-food, fisheries and forestry: an estimated 88 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in the EU.

Industry: Including circular economy initiatives through sectoral agendas, to improve the competitiveness of our companies.

Consumer goods: Improving durability, increasing the use of recycled materials, restricting the placing on the market of single-use products, etc.

Tourism: with significant potential for improvement in waste management in tourist areas, the rational use of water in beach areas where it is particularly scarce, or the growth of inland tourism associated with nature.

Textiles and clothing: The reuse of garments or their valorisation, the use of recycled materials for making clothes, as well as the social perspective of the value chain of sustainable garments are also aspects to be considered.

The autonomous communities are in turn adopting different measures and initiatives associated with the circular economy, with different regulatory status. Their proximity to the citizen, together with their competences in environmental management, gives them a very relevant role in this matter.

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