EU plans ‘digital product passport’ to boost circular economy

The European Commission plans to introduce a “digital product passport” early next year that would contain information about the composition of goods on the European market to help boost their chances of being reused and recycled.

The idea is to identify the most important information about the makeup of each product so that users across the supply chain can reuse it or treat it correctly at waste management facilities.

By mid-century, Europe aims to reach net zero emissions and zero pollution, but it needs to tackle overconsumption and waste in order to reach those goals.

At the moment, half of total greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress come from resource extraction and processing. Global consumption of materials, like biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals is expected to double over the next four decades, with annual waste generation projected to increase 70% by 2050.

To counter this, Europe must switch to sustainable, long-lasting products and slow down the use of resources as they flow through the economy. The sustainable product initiative, due early next year, will be a big push towards this.

“We really need to make sure that the products that are put on our markets are designed to be durable, repairable, and so on. So this is what we tried to do in the sustainable product initiative,” said William Neale, adviser for circular economy at the European Commission’s environment department.

The digital product passport will be part of this initiative. At the moment, as goods are produced, bought and sold, the information about their components and recyclability is lost.

The passport will address this by “harnessing the data for public good,” Neale said.

“It can be one thing which can ruin a batch, which can render unviable recycling and can contaminate a lot. We need to know about that,” he said at an EVENT on the circular economy run by EURACTIV.

“We can put together a process where we identify those bits of information which are really killers in terms of ruining value if that information is not made available along the line,” Neale added, citing the example of textiles, where PVC prints on garments can prevent recyclability.

Tackling greenwashing

For Europe to reach its climate goals, it is vital that consumers and businesses now keep products in circulation as long as possible, said David Cormand, a French Green MEP.

“We are designing and marketing objects that are not created to last. Most of the time, as soon as they are produced, they become waste, of which only a tiny part is designed to be reused, repaired or recycled,” he said.

To tackle this, Cormand called for a mandatory European standard for durability and repairability that would make environmental products the norm on the market. The information must also be used to fight greenwashing and penalise those companies who are not working sustainably, said Cormand.

“What we know today is that we don’t know as citizens. Most of us have our homes filled with toxic chemicals, present in furniture, in flooring, in concrete,” said Joan Marc Simon, executive director at the NGO Zero Waste Europe.

“It is impossible to know whether the product is safe, repairable, recyclable, so from that perspective, I think information is important for consumers,” he added.

But the push to create sustainable and long-lasting products must go beyond the passport. There also need to be processes by which consumers can send products back to be repaired, he said.

Product passport in practice

Identifying the information that users across the supply chain require is a huge amount of work. Because of this, the European Commission will deal with it “product by product” in delegated acts, Neale said.

Creating the passport will need the whole supply chain to sit down and discuss the crucial information that could prevent a product from going to waste. These discussions could also help alleviate concerns of the passport containing information that breaches intellectual property rights, he explained.

“When it comes to intellectual property, privacy, and so on, we need to make sure that those are dealt with either through encryption or through making data available at a later date. In each case, this will be done product by product and in full consultation,” said Neale.

“We’re talking about mostly existing data. We’re talking about a decentralised or distributed approach to the data. It does not have to move from where it’s created,” he added.

No one size fits all

However, in drafting the legislation, the European Commission also needs to bear in mind the differences between consumer goods, which are mass-produced and have relatively short lifetimes, and long-lasting products, according to Karl Haeusgen, president of VDMA, the German mechanical engineering industry association.

“If we look at textile products, we have relatively simple products that consist of a limited number of materials and it’s relatively easy to collect respective data on such products. If you move on to a cell phone or to a hairdryer, you already have more complex products,” said Haeusgen.


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