10 Jan 2023

Written by

Esra Tat, Executive Director at Zero Waste Europe

Sustainability-as-usual is over: time for radical realism

Zero Waste Europe - general

If 2022 has taught us anything, it’s that we can no longer afford to be complacent about sustainability, and we need to reform our relationship with natural resources. Political systems have failed to promote the wellbeing and safety of communities, often lacking both vision and ambition. Our reliance on fossil fuels and disposable products has led to the overstepping of planetary boundaries and the erosion of social equity and human rights, and even to war. In 2022, access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment was recognised as a universal human right, but it’s clear that current efforts are not enough. 

We need radical realism* in order to fully address the environmental, social, and economic challenges we face.

A step in the right direction, but not enough

In Europe, we have made progress in understanding how to move towards a circular economy since the first Circular Economy (CE) strategy was published almost 10 years ago. Waste is increasingly seen as a public health issue, and fighting chemicals is a way to build a toxic-free CE. From the point of view of resource use, we have shifted the debate from burning vs. recycling to recycling vs. prevention, now slowly moving beyond waste and materials. However, even the most ambitious strategies in key sectors are unlikely to prevent the risk of overshooting our global carbon budget. We need to reduce and reverse material consumption in all sectors; and focus on strategies that reduce overall consumption or shift towards sectors with lower carbon intensities. But carbon is only one aspect of the problem. We also need to consider issues like biodiversity loss, water, and land use; and address the fact that resource depletion and pollution disproportionately affects marginalised communities.

Essential use: a new way of thinking

One way forward is to promote the idea of essential use across the board. 

How much is enough? What is critical? How little is necessary? 

While this idea is common among civil society groups, it has not yet been embraced by policy-makers, who continue to focus on optimising a broken system or mitigating its shortcomings.

Imagine if we could reallocate the carbon budget based on an essential use rationale, with policies that not only reduce resource use and promote circularity, but also address social and economic inequalities that exacerbate the environmental crisis. For example, in the case of land use, policy-makers will need to consider the competing demands for materials, fuels, and food, land tenure rights and biodiversity protection initiatives, and avoid trade-offs that fuel inequalities and accelerate overshooting of planetary boundaries. 

A global plastic budget could also be used to prioritise essential uses, such as medical materials, over disposable products like single-use packaging.

Industries like fast fashion are characterised by a business model based on overproduction and largely enabled by access to cheap synthetic fibres combined with limited accountability for negative environmental impacts and human rights violations. Current policies are unable and unlikely to contain such a model – as long as they mainly aim at addressing the textile dilemma only with eco-design legislation and waste management of textile products. It requires a shift in policy-making, prioritising the common good and sustainability over short-term consumption and profit, and an essential use lens could help that

Resilience, sufficiency, and wellbeing: a new compass for Europe

Overall, it’s time for radical realism. What may seem radical today may appear as a timid and weak course of action in the near future. The chain of crises, disruption of global supply chains, and energy price increases have made a circular economy desirable, but above all inevitable, for most Europeans. By embracing the idea of essential use and integrating environmental justice at its core, we can mitigate the risks of overshooting our global carbon budget and work towards a more equitable and liveable future. This is the vision outlined in our manifesto launched last November, and we urge policy-makers to take bold action to make it a reality.

In 2023, the European Union has several opportunities to step up and lead the way, including as part of the negotiations for the Global Treaty on Plastics. 

From our side, this year we will continue to advocate for greater political ambition at the EU and national levels, in collaboration with our members. In addition, we will support coalitions and alliances that cross sectors, disciplines, and borders in order to push for transformative solutions. We will also work with cities and businesses to further promote reuse, and textiles, with the goal of establishing a new system outside of the legislative agenda.

Europe is at a crossroad, and we do have a choice: we can either take bold, ambitious action now, or wait until the multi-layer crisis becomes even more dire and the solutions even more drastic. 

The time for sustainability-as-usual is over. It is time for radical realism.

*Zero Waste Europe first breached the topic of radical realism while collaborating with the Henrich Böll Foundation in 2018, when we co-authored chapters of their “Radical Realism for Climate Justice” series. Five years later, the reality is such that the concept of radical realism not only still applies to the world’s situation, but is also more pressing than ever.