Spain lags far behind in the EU in terms of circular economy

by Lorraine Williamson
circular economy

Spain is severely lacking in the development of a circular economy, according to a report by the BBVA Foundation and the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie). It warns that the degree of circularity is very low in Spain, but also that Spain is at the bottom of the EU when it comes to innovation in this area.

Within the EU-27, Spain is at the bottom, with an average of 0.4 patents per thousand inhabitants over the past decade. And this is despite the fact that it is crucial to address current environmental challenges and reduce external dependency on raw materials.

Waste generation leader

Spain has gone from being the leader in waste generation in the European Union (EU) in just over 20 years. It is the country that generated the least waste per inhabitant in 2021. Even so, “there is still a long way to go in the development of the circular economy” as recycling rates are very low. Only 48% of total waste is recovered, which is 10% lower than the EU-27 average (58%).

Circularity This results in “a very modest circular use of materials,” according to the document, prepared with Eurostat data. In fact, between 2010 and 2022, this has worsened, with a decrease of 3.3%, from 10.4 to 7.1%. To harness the potential of the circular economy, more investment is needed in research, development, eco-design and eco-innovation and the cooperation of all public and private actors. But also in the users, who have to commit to this model. Only then can Spain change the way it produces, consumes and manages resources.

Circular economy vs. traditional economy

Unlike the traditional linear model (extract, produce, use, and dispose of), the circular economy promotes reuse, repair, recycling, and waste reduction. So instead of considering end-of-life products as waste, people are looking for ways to reintroduce these materials into the production chain.

In this sense, the circular economy is seen as “crucial” to address environmental challenges, reduce dependence on non-renewable resources and external suppliers of raw materials, and foster innovation.

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EU action plan

This is why the EU has set ambitious targets in the Circular Economy Action Plan. Which is one of the pillars of the European Green Deal. This plan aims to increase resource efficiency. A product design that promotes durability and ease of repair can help with this. But also, the promotion of reuse and recycling, sustainable management of natural resources and minimising waste.

The EC monitors compliance in five areas. These are, first of all, production and consumption; waste treatment and secondary raw materials. But also, competitiveness and innovation and global sustainability and resilience.

Waste per capita

Between 2004 and 2020, waste per capita in Spain fell by 40%. This was mainly due to the decrease in chemical waste (68%), wood (69%), textiles (50%) and plastics (50%). Municipal waste accounts for 20% of the total. This makes Spain one of the countries that reduced the most kilos of waste per capita. The decline since the beginning of the century has been about 32.5%.

As a result, Spain has grown from the country that produced the most municipal waste per capita in 2000 (653 kg/year) to the country that produced the least in 2021 (472 kg/year). Almost 200 kilos less.

However, these good results are not replicated in other types of waste, such as electronic waste. That more than doubled between 2009 and 2018. Packaging waste has grown by 12% since the beginning of the century. This type of waste has also increased in other EU countries. One explanation for this is digitization and online commerce.

Lowest recycling rate

Spain is at the bottom of the list in terms of the recycling rate of municipal waste. By only 36.7%. Spain is 12% below the EU-27 average (48.7%). It is far away from comparable countries such as Germany (67.8%), the Netherlands (57.8%), Italy (51.9%) or France (43.8%). But the recycling rate of all waste is also lower in Spain. This is 48%, compared to 58% in the EU-27. In Spain, recycling and material recovery activities account for 1.9% of GDP. Within the EU, the average is 2.1%.

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