Circular economy – an opportunity for Romanian Research, Development and Innovation sector?
It is a fact that Romania has registered the lowest level of R&D&I expense in EU with 0,42% of GDP in 2012 according to Eurostat as opposed to the first ranked Finland with 3,55%, Bulgaria with 0,64% and the average for EU 28 reaching 2,06%. Unfortunately, this is not a singular year for Romania, during the past 10 years the situation has worsened, even in the economic boom of 2004-2008, the maximum reached was 0,58% in 2008. And the prospects do not look encouraging although, the Romanian government committed for 2% in 2020 out of which 1% public contribution and 1% private investment in R&D&I. Could Romania reach this goal? Our purpose with this article is to illustrate the opportunities that circular economy open to our R&D&I sector.
First, let’s briefly introduce the concept of circular economy in the broader context of Europe 2020 strategy aiming for a smart, inclusive and sustainable European Union at the end of the implementation of current European programming period (2023).
A first approach would be to think to circular economy as opposed to linear economy whose classical model is take (resource) – make (product) – dispose (waste). Instead, circular economy ultimate objective is to produce zero waste or, alternatively, the waste disposed to be of a nutrient type to the environment.
As the first principles of the circular economy are to prevent and to think an efficient use of resources in a primary stage, the England’s National Waste Prevention Plan, under the motto “Prevention is better than cure”, bring in a diagram through which the circuit of a product under the new revolutionary vision is designed in a suggestive manner as shown below.
Source: Waste Prevention Plan for England
The driver behind the five pillars of circular economy described above, firstly take into account the reduction of energy and raw materials consumption thus contributing to a sustainable growth and financial savings. Secondly, it is necessary from the early phase of design to incorporate the whole life cycle for the product including transformation from waste to a newly born resource through reuse. By starting from an early stage with redesign and increased efficiency for inputs, circular economy will be in the position to attract innovation and appropriate solutions for reducing the impact of human civilization on the environment.
An argument towards moving to a circular economy in Romania stands up as well from a comparative analysis between generated and recycled waste among EU Member States. According to Eurostat figures, the most economically advanced countries of Europe are included in the top of waste producers measured as volume of waste generated per inhabitant and in the same time in the top of recycling countries.
The indicator values for 2010 range between 588 kg/inhabitant of waste produced per year in Latvia to 8.556 kg/inhabitant in Estonia (this huge amount may reflect some different methodology in adding up various categories of wastes). The average of European waste generated is 1.847 kg/inhabitant, Romania being slightly above this value with 2.046 kg/inhabitant, as well as Denmark and Netherlands with 2.386 kg/inhabitant and 2.519 kg/inhabitant respectively, while Belgium is situated well above the EU average with 4.325 kg/inhabitant.
Waste generation indicator by countries and waste category, EU, 2010 (kg/inhabitant)
Although, some of them much above the EU average in terms of waste generated, most economically advanced countries of Europe are performers of recycling leading to reduced quantities of waste landfilled as opposed to EU member states such as Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal where almost all waste is reaching garbage dumps. This means that performers have already started adopting circular economy with increased efficiency in repairing, reusing, recycling and capitalizing through incineration, landfilling being the last resort option. Thus, performing countries are moving towards full compliance with the waste hierarchy imposed by the European Commission’s Waste Framework Directive not only at a declarative level but in real terms as well.
Waste landfilled, excl. major mineral wastes, by country and waste category, 2010 (kg/inhabitant)
In terms of landfilled waste, the indicators values range from 53 kg/inhabitant in Denmark and Netherland to 6.202 kg/inhabitant in Estonia, the EU average being 429 kg/inhabitant. Romania with its 928 kg/inhabitant of waste landfilled is an underperforming country, ranking the fourth at landfilling (being surpassed by Estonia, Greece and Lithuania), just as it is noted within the Environment National Report 2013 where the percentage of waste disposed reaches 93% from the total municipal waste while the recycling is barely mentioned, its percentage recording a negligible level.
Even if the performing countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium a.o. appear to be pretty close to the adoption of circular economy model, nowadays this concept is still at an early stage. Considering this, the low level of Romanian R&D&I expenditure during past 20 years may reflect on one hand, the tough restructuring process of economy which resulted in closing down major R&D units and, on the other hand, diminished appetite for R&D&I activities which are long term investments with uncertain outcome. In addition, Romanian industry has substantially shrunk being at large dominated by foreign companies not really interested to set up R&D facilities locally if only taking in consideration the unclear intellectual property legislation and the limited efficiency of the judiciary system. Under those circumstances focusing on circular economy for the Romanian research and development seems to be an opportunity for new units and a way to comply with the Europe 2020 commitments of the Government namely reach the level of 2% of GDP expenses for R&D.
Thus, Romania would fulfill two objectives, raising its low level of expenditure within the R&D&I sector and, in the same time, complying with the waste hierarchy, given that through the European Funds 2014-2020, namely through Competitiveness Operational Program, there are 797 million Euro available only for R&D&I projects related to Europe 2020 goals.