In celebration of the start of the Saïd Business School’s Circular Economy module this Trinity semester, students involved in the programme have interviewed key practitioners in the rapidly emerging field. This blog series aims to document key practitioner’s stories; perspectives on what skills are relevant to a successful career and what they see the future holds for the circular economy and its many players.
On a recent trip to Brussels, Frances Christodoulou (MSc Environmental Change & Management, School of Geography & the Environment) caught up with Karolina Kalinowska, a policy officer with the European Commission who has spent a year working on the European Union’s Circular Economy Strategy.
Karolina is keen to tackle society’s big challenges through international policy. With an academic background in human and environmental sciences, Karolina applied to the EU Commission’s blue book traineeship. Accepted into the Directorate-General for the Environment, she was assigned to the Circular Economy unit. This unit was tasked to implement the EU’s flagship Circular Economy Package, a scheme adopted in 2015 to enable Europe’s transition to a more circular, sustainable economy.
In collaboration with colleagues from the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry, Karolina was involved in high-level stakeholder meetings and workshops. Meeting with industry to discuss their needs and how the EU viewed the circular economy transition was central to her role.
“When you deal with any sort of transition it’s not easy, although it was surprising how much the industry was actually wanting to have this transition enabled,” Karolina explains. “Environmental protection is more and more on people’s minds. People recognise that business is a big part of environmental degradation, but also a means for safeguarding the environment. And industry themselves realise that resources are finite.”
By harnessing these ideas, the EU Commission aims to facilitate the transition to a circular economy. Building on concepts of eco-design and efficiency, the idea is to create an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs are empowered to develop circular business models. “Closing the loop” helps businesses maximise the value of resources and wastes, while creating benefits for both the environment and economy as a whole.
As a policy officer with DG Environment, Karolina found her analytical and technical background very useful. However, her abilities to negotiate and apply “holistic thinking” were vital when it came to interacting with stakeholders and developing policies.
“For example the development of the Plastic Strategy involved months and months and months of public consultation, stakeholder meetings and really working with the sectors that would be affected,” says Karolina. “You need a balance of interests to push something through”. Having the skills to negotiate with different actors, while thinking holistically about the issues, are central to successful policy implementation.
On the job, Karolina developed the communication skills needed to deal with stakeholders pursuing different roles, purposes and ambitions. She learnt how to write “very concise briefings” to convey EU policy and key arguments, quickly and succinctly to varied audiences. She also developed stakeholder awareness, always “thinking from what angle should we approach these people; what are their interests?” Dealing with both NGOs and for-profit industry the “need to meet conflicting interests” was at the forefront of her work, making communication key.
There are still many barriers to realising the transition to a thriving, circular economy. For businesses, Karolina identifies the challenges as “largely technical”. Many companies have limited technical expertise to implement sustainable practices, and often “circular” solutions are not yet fully developed. Capital costs can also be a barrier, since often new technologies are “more expensive at the beginning, as…with technological transitions in general”. This is where the EU plans to act as facilitator and enabler by providing funds and financial support for research and innovation.
What are the challenges Karolina sees for policy makers pushing a circular economy agenda? At the fore is the need to manage conflicting interests and negotiate trade-offs in a political environment. In the EU, the need for 28 member states to cooperate and agree for policy to be implemented is a major challenge. The Council (comprised of the heads of member states) “aren’t willing and can be even less ambitious than…the private sector” when it comes to environmental policies, posing a massive challenge to progressing the circular economy agenda.
With enthusiasm for the circular economy growing and more business eager to get involved, Karolina worries about the possibility of “greenwashing”. Circular economy is a powerful concept with the ability to drive much needed change. However, “it can often be misunderstood; [used as] a catch-all phrase”, says Karolina, and as a concept has the potential to be hijacked by companies who wish to project a “green” image, while doing very little for the environment. But this doesn’t mean we should shy away from encouraging businesses to adopt “circular” practices.
And with all this talk of international policy and the European economy, has Karolina’s relationship with waste at a personal level been affected at all?
“Hugely,…inevitably you learn so much”, says Karolina. “And also when you realise that in Brussels the waste management is absolutely rubbish [*Ahem*], you start thinking about your own personal choices”. Not being able to recycle most plastics, Karolina now tries to avoid single-use plastic, shops at the local, package free market and seeks out Eco-label products.
Small steps, to be sure. But even these small lifestyle choices show the potential and desire to implement a more circular economy. There is massive scope for creativity and innovation within this space and policy-makers and business alike are at the forefront of driving this change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and interlocutor and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Commission.