Austria ranks as one of the global recycling champions: already in 2018, 58% of
all municipal waste in the country was recycled. Yet the analysis conducted by Circle Economy, a Netherlands-based impact organisation, and Altstoff Recycling Austria AG (ARA) estimated that the country’s economy at the time was only 9.7% circular —only slightly above the global average. This study pinpointed an often-neglected fact: recycling alone is not enough to reach environmental goals. In December 2022, the Austrian government adopted a much more comprehensive policy document—the National Circular Economy Strategy setting the goal of an 18% circular economy by 2030.
There is more to a circular economy than recycling
Recycling is one of the four key principles of the circular economy: it allows for some of the value in materials locked into products and long-lasting stocks to be recovered and put to use again. But much more value can be retained by simply continuing to use materials for as long as possible in the first place, or reusing them at a higher or equal value. According to the Circularity Gap Report (CGR) 2023, to cut material extraction and carbon emissions substantially, countries should design stocks like buildings, infrastructure, machinery and cars to be rich material mines for the future. The manufacturing and construction industries, for their part, should prioritise regenerative materials and incorporate future reuse in product design. Furthermore, the focus must also centre on getting more value out of fewer materials.
A national economy with limited metrics, high consumption and large stock build-up
The Circularity Gap methodology was, for the first time, applied on a county level in Austria. The 2018 Circularity Gap Report Austria showed that Austria didn’t track what happened after materials were recovered or recycled—their afterlife wasn’t included in national statistics. The report recommended monitoring the usage of secondary resources, so the stocks can become functional raw material deposits—or ‘urban mines’. Moreover, the study argued that businesses and city planners should be nudged to embrace secondary materials, for example through setting recycled materials quotas for manufacturers.
The Circularity Gap Report Austria also indicated that effective circular policies should target sectors with the highest consumption footprint. For Austria, providing Mobility and Consumables to the population contributed a massive 46% to the country’s consumption. In addition, a considerable part of the footprint came from long-lasting stock such as roads, cars and buildings. Consequently, the country was advised to introduce policies that would keep stock in use for as long as possible, while incorporating multiple lifecycles in the design of new buildings and infrastructure.
‘In the course of the project, a wide range of knowledgeable stakeholders contributed to the work and its database. This dialogue was essential for establishing a fact-based approach to the circular economy in Austria as opposed to rather political or ideological approaches’, said Christoph Scharff, former CEO of ARA. ‘The presentation of the final report was held by the authors and ARA together with the Austrian Ministry of Environment (MoE) as a show of official support and endorsement of evidence-based environmental policies’.
What happened next?
Following publication, the Report landed on the desks of policymakers, fueling a wider discussion on circular pathways for Austria that included businesses, civil society, ministries, federal states and the research community. In 2020, the Austrian Ministry of Climate Protection began developing the national Circular Economy Strategy. The draft document was first presented to the public at the Circular Economy Summit Austria in March 2022. Finally, the Austrian Cabinet of Ministers officially approved the strategy on the 7th of December, 2022, and pledged to deliver the first progress report by the end of 2023.
The document consists of roughly 600 measures spanning buildings and infrastructure, mobility, plastic and packaging, electronics and communications, biomass, waste management and secondary materials. It puts a great emphasis on recycling—already a strong point—amplifying it with policies to increase the use of secondary materials. This guideline is to be realised by promoting secondary material digital databases and introducing minimum quotas for recycled materials in products. The roadmap also seeks to increase the quality of secondary materials through certification and modernising sorting and recycling facilities. In that way, manufacturers are motivated to build secondary materials into their products; they can locate required materials via an online marketplace and, finally, rest assured that secondary input will not compromise their product’s quality.
To preserve its buildings and infrastructure stock, Austria will introduce permits for demolition—simply bulldozing an old building will soon become tricky. And when buildings are torn down, the demolition company will be required to properly recycle waste and make it available for future reuse. Moreover, multifunctional (re)use components must be baked into the design of all new service buildings like power plants and airports, states the strategy. For service and private buildings alike, minimum recycled materials input will soon become a reality. Taking good care of the current stock is coupled with plans to downsize the road infrastructure to slash the use of sand, gravel, lime and other materials. This will be achieved by boosting pedestrian and bike lanes and further developing the public transport system.
According to the CGR Austria, 55% of the country’s consumption footprint in 2018 came from abroad. The government, therefore, decided to strengthen local production to gain more control over secondary material inputs, in particular in fibres and textiles. In addition, it emphasised requirements for more transparent supply and value chains, including for imports.
‘Involving the research community is key to achieving tangible results in sustainable development. We are happy to see that our work inspired and empowered Austria to set clear quantitative targets in their circular transition’, said Circle Economy’s CEO Martijn Lopes Cardozo.
Since 2018, Circle Economy has also conducted Circularity Gap Reports for the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, calculating their circularity rating and spelling out pathways to bolster a circular economy in these countries and regions.