Circular economy

In a circular economy, raw materials are used efficiently and for as long as possible. When material and product loops are closed, raw materials can carry on being reused. This benefits both the environment and the Swiss economy. The federal government works closely with the business community, supports innovative environmental technologies and, in some cases, introduces regulatory measures.

What is a circular economy?   

The circular economy differs from the linear production processes that are still widespread today. In a linear economic system, raw materials are extracted, and products are manufactured and sold, consumed and disposed of (see following diagram). This leads to shortages of raw materials, emissions, large volumes of waste and the associated environmental problems.

Diagram of a linear economic system
Figure 1: Diagram of a linear economic system

In a circular economy, products and materials are kept in circulation (green arrows in the following diagram). As a result, fewer primary raw materials are used than in the linear system. Moreover, products retain their value for longer and less waste is generated.

The circular economy is an integrated approach which considers the cycle as a whole, from raw material extraction through design, production, distribution and a maximised use phase, to recycling. A change of mindset is needed among all stakeholders if products and materials are to remain in the loop.

Diagram of the circular economy
Figure 2: Diagram of the circular economy

Keeping products in the loop

The useful life and life cycle of products is increased by sharing, reusing, repairing and refurbishing them. Viewed across the entire product lifespan, this not only protects the environment, but also saves consumers money in most cases. The long product use phase opens up new business opportunities for the Swiss economy, with its focus on innovation and quality. For instance, companies can offer repair services and products can be leased instead of sold.

Only when a product can no longer be used is it sent for recycling so that the materials can be reused. From an environmental perspective, it is better in nearly all cases to continue using products for as long as possible, since even recycling uses energy, water or chemicals, and therefore has an impact on the environment.

Keeping materials in the loop

Materials of biological or organic origin (e.g. food preparation waste) should, where possible, be recycled or fermented after use. For instance, nutrients can be returned to agriculture in the form of compost, where they can promote the growth of new raw materials.

Most other materials in a circular economy should also ideally be separated, collected and recycled. This creates high-quality secondary raw materials such as PET and aluminium, which can be sold and reused to produce new goods. It is important that harmful substances are removed and withdrawn from the cycle during the collecting and recycling processes. Secondary materials obtained from recycling and processing can replace primary raw materials in the production process. This makes secondary raw materials attractive not only from an environmental perspective but also in terms of the Swiss economy.

Ecodesign for circular production

Ecodesign is an approach that systematically incorporates environmental considerations into product planning, development and design right from the start using life cycle assessments. Ecodesign looks for concepts, materials and construction techniques that minimise a product’s consumption of resources and raw materials throughout its life cycle. This also opens up cost-saving possibilities.

To maximise the life of a product and ensure that it will be recyclable afterwards, aspects of the circular economy need to be considered during the design phase. Products must be designed and manufactured in such a way that they use minimum resources, are durable, modular and capable of being repaired and dismantled. The choice of materials is also important: as far as possible, materials should be separable, safe and recyclable. Labelling is another important factor. Instead of just stating ‘recyclable’, a label should mention the proportion of recycling material (secondary raw material) that a product contains. Wherever possible, the entire process will avoid using chemicals that are harmful to the environment or human health. Another central element of the circular economy concept is that it uses renewable energy. This energy should be used as efficiently and sparingly as possible because raw materials and natural resources are required even for the supply of renewable energy.

Carrying out a life cycle assessment is the only way to ensure that new circular economy projects and measures do in fact reduce environmental impacts.

Circular economy in Switzerland

As a country with few raw materials, Switzerland has been pursuing circular economy approaches since the mid-1980s, and has succeeded in closing some loops, at least partially. For instance, in 2018, nearly 12 million out of a total of 17.5 million tonnes of demolition materials, including concrete, gravel, sand, tarmac and masonry, were recycled. More than 5 million tonnes, primarily mixed demolition materials, were not yet in a closed loop. In terms of municipal waste, over half is separated, collected and recycled. However, Switzerland’s high recycling rate stands alongside a huge volume of waste. Hardly any other country generates as much municipal waste in relation to the resident population.

There is still much to be done to reach a circular economy. For instance, in the future, a greater proportion of textile fibres, construction materials, plastics and biogenic waste could be kept in the cycle. Businesses have increasingly been taking circular economy principles into consideration for some years now.

Consumers also have an important role to play in a functioning circular economy. They can contribute to the transition through sustainable consumption and by using products for as long as possible. It is also in their power to ensure that products are increasingly shared, reused, repaired and refurbished. And, ultimately, that products that can no longer be used are collected and disposed of separately. Public procurement offices at federal, canton and local authority level and in the private sector also have a central role to play in the transition towards a more circular economy.

What is the federal government doing?

There are many different ways of promoting the circular economy. Measures are based on the precautionary principle and the polluter-pays principle, as well as on cutting-edge technology, innovations, collaboration with industry and, where necessary, new regulations.

In Switzerland, the circular economy model has taken hold primarily in the area of waste management. Additional measures are investigated in a report by the Federal Council on the Vonlanthen postulate: “Seizing the opportunities of the circular economy – A review of fiscal incentives and other measures”. It comes to the conclusion that the most effective way to promote the circular economy is through a well-coordinated bundle of supply- and demand-side measures. These include, for example, measures aimed at increasing the useful life of products. Other measures focus on the design and production of closed-loop products.

In addition, the Federal Office for the Environment is supporting the transition towards a circular economy by promoting environmental technology and through its green public procurement office. It also works with organisations that promote the circular economy, such as Circular Economy Switzerland, Go for Impact and Ressourcen-Trialog.

The Council of States’ Postulate 18.3509 Noser calls for a systematic identification of hurdles to resource efficiency and a circular economy. The analysis reveals that the exploitation of the potentials outlined by the fields of action is not hindered by individual regulatory hurdles. Rather, all fields of action involve multi-layered constellations of mutually influencing hurdles as part of complex socio-technical market and system structures.

Steuerliche und weitere Massnahmen zur Förderung der Kreislaufwirtschaft (PDF, 751 kB, 16.06.2020)Bericht des Bundesrates vom 19. Juni 2020 in Erfüllung des Postulates 17.3505 «Die Chancen der Kreislaufwirtschaft nutzen. Prüfung steuerlicher Anreize und weiterer Massnahmen» von Ständerat Beat Vonlanthen vom 15. Juni 2017.

The circular economy is part of the green economy and sustainable development

The Sustainable Development Strategy encompasses the three dimensions of sustainability – environment, society and economy – and sets out the Federal Council’s policy priorities.  The green economy contributes in particular to environmentally and economically sustainable development. It pursues an economic system with sustainable, resource-efficient production and consumption patterns. It takes account of the limited supply of natural resources and the regeneration capacity of renewable resources. Circular models represent an important part of the green economy.

However, not all circular economy measures make sense from an environmental perspective. For instance, the recycling and treatment processes for certain materials require more resources and energy using today’s technologies than would be consumed if primary raw materials were used instead. A life cycle assessment can determine which measures in the circular economy actually make sense from an environmental perspective by analysing every step of the product and raw material life cycles. Life cycle assessments take account of all the relevant environmental impacts throughout a product’s life cycle.

Circular economy in other countries

In 2015, the European Commission passed a circular economy package and, since then, has been taking steps to strengthen the circular economy. The ecodesign directive has an important role to play in this. Among other things, it provides the legal basis for the minimum requirements for household appliances, including maximum energy consumption and the requirement that appliances must be capable of being repaired.

In 2016, sectors relevant to the circular economy employed over four million people in the EU. The global market for the circular economy and material and resource efficiency has grown by over ten per cent in the past five years. This is faster than the global economy as a whole.

Ecologically Sustainable Construction – Analysis of Training and Further Education

This study analyses training and further education in terms of environmental sustainability in architecture and engineering. The study examined 32 degree programmes and 58 continuing education programmes in Switzerland. The analysis shows that environmental sustainability is rooted in the module descriptions of most study programmes, but none of the descriptions achieved the top score. There is potential to present the competences more prominently. Cooperation and energy demand are the most frequently described topics, while material cycles, environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, natural environment, landscape and sufficiency occur less frequently. The study recommends defining or supplementing goals on these topics, developing faculty know-how and taking further measures. These recommendations are to be implemented primarily through SwissEnergy's 'Training Campaign in Construction'.

Further information

Last modification 31.03.2022

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