A quick, non-comprehensive update on circular economy and public procurement

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A friend and I have been discussing sustainability and property regulation for a while. In particular, he has been quizzing me on the potential for public procurement to promote a (more) circular economy for a few years now. We last touched upon this in mid-2015. In a recent email exchange, he asked me to look at what had happened since at EU level. This is what I came up with. I thought I would share it in case someone is interested in a quick, non-comprehensive update on circular economy and public procurement. Here it is. Please feel free to add to this in the comments section!

In June 2017, the European Parliament published a report it had commissioned on 'Green Public Procurement and the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy'. In October 2017, the Directorate General for the Environment of the European Commission published this brochure of best practices (of which I was rather critical in my blog). There have been additional best practice guides put together by entities receiving EU funding, eg ICLEI or CircularPP.

This is still a weak policy intervention in the form of best practice dissemination (ie even weaker than soft law guidelines), which is supported with some additional initiatives, such as the Circular Europe Network. However, in their own words 'the integration between PP and circular economy is still at its early stage at the EU level.' (Factsheet on Public Procurement and Circular Economy, tab 2.3).

Some countries are taking the use of procurement to push for a more circular economy to reduce the environmental impact of public sector activities more seriously than others, and the construction sector seems to be ahead of others (see eg this recent report). Denmark is perhaps at the forefront of trying to use procurement for a circular economy (see eg this case study), together with the other Nordic countries and The Netherlands (see eg this 2017 report, or the 10 case studies included in the construction sector report above). There is not much going on in the UK at all (I could only find a 2016 4-pager on general aspects of circular economy that mentions procurement in passing).

There are a couple of interesting-looking academic papers: Witjes & Lozano (2016) and Alhola et al (2018), the latter being the same authors of the report on the Nordic countries above.

** Postscript (11/10/2019 11.20am) - Thanks to Dr Lela Mélon for highlighting the March 2019 Report on ‘Accelerating the transition to a circular economy‘ and for pointing out that this is ‘an overarching policy example that omits the amount of private capital needed for a transition to occur at a noteworthy scale (e.g. mentioning the EU public funds to be employed to that effect but omitting the size of the whole funding needed for the transition)‘.

Public procurement for a circular economy: some thoughts on policy coordination and fluffy guidance

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The European Commission has published 'Public procurement for a circular economy. Good practice and guidance', where it offers its views on how to implement procurement policies that go beyond green public procurement to engage in circular procurement, understood as 'the process by which public authorities purchase works, goods or services that seek to contribute to closed energy and material loops within supply chains, whilst minimising, and in the best case avoiding, negative environmental impacts and waste creation across their whole life-cycle'. 

Therefore, circular procurement seems to be a sub-type of green procurement (in turn, a sub-type of smart procurement) mainly concerned with life-cycle and life-cycle costing. So the adoption of this guidance only a few days after the adoption of the Communication on 'Making public procurement work in and for Europe' (see here) raises some questions on coordination of policy efforts and messages from the Commission. If the Commission knew that this guidance was bound to be adopted, why did it not mention it in the Communication earlier this month? Is this a sign of discoordination between different Directorates General within the Commission (in particular, Environment and Growth)? Would linked-up policy efforts not yield better results?

Regardless of those political economy issues, and probably as a result of the new 'circular procurement guidance' being a product of DG Environment, most of the guidance is of a high level of generality and mainly concentrates on issues of political and organisational buy-in. From a practical and legal perspective, the document does not do much more than refer back to pre-existing guidance on the use of green procurement criteria (which have been expanded to new product groups) and reiterate some general remarks about the flexibility created in the 2014 Public Procurement Package for the inclusion of environmentally-orientated technical specifications and award criteria, and their evaluation. 

In short, other than some examples of innovative practices, I did not find the 'circular procurement guidance' all that useful, and I think that the Commission needs to make much more significant efforts to provide practical and useful guidance if it wants to support the uptake of green, and in particular circular, procurement at Member State level. Currently, the lack of guidance on life-cycle costing (Art 68 Dir 2014/24/EU) is probably the single most relevant obstacle in significant uptake of circular procurement. When will this gap be filled?