The European Commission plans to introduce a ‘digital product passport‘ that will contain information on the composition of products on the European market to help increase re-use and recycling possibilities. The idea is to identify the most important information on the composition of each product so that users in the supply chain can reuse it or treat it correctly in waste management facilities.
By mid-century, Europe aims to achieve zero net emissions and zero pollution, but needs to tackle over-consumption and waste in order to reach these goals.
Currently, half of total greenhouse gas emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress result from resource extraction and processing. Global consumption of materials such as biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals is projected to double in the next forty years and annual waste generation is expected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050.
The digital product passport and the sustainable products initiative
To counter this phenomenon, Europe must switch to sustainable and durable products and slow down the use of resources in their economic flow. The EU Sustainable Products Initiative is a big push in this direction.
“We really need to make sure that the products we put on the market in our markets are designed to be durable, repairable and so on. That’s what we’re trying to do with the sustainable products initiative,” said William Neale, circular economy advisor at the European Commission’s Environment Department.
The digital product passport will be part of this initiative. Currently, as goods are produced, bought and sold, information about their components and recyclability is lost.
The passport will address this problem by ‘harnessing data for the public good‘, Neale said.
“A material can make recycling impractical and pollute a lot. We need to know this,” he told an EVENT on the circular economy organised by EURACTIV.
“We can set up a process where we can identify that information that is really crucial in terms of loss of value if it is not available,” Neale added, citing the example of the textile industry, where PVC printing on garments can prevent recyclability.
For Europe to achieve its climate goals, it is crucial that consumers and companies keep products in circulation as long as possible, said David Cormand, French Green MEP.
“We are designing and marketing objects that are not built to last. Most of the time, as soon as they are produced, they become waste, only a small part of which is designed to be reused, repaired or recycled,” he said.
To address this problem, Cormand called for a mandatory European standard for durability and reparability that would make environmentally friendly products the norm on the market. The information should also be used to combat greenwashing and penalise companies that do not work in a sustainable manner, Cormand said.
“Most of us have homes full of toxic chemicals, found in furniture, in floors, in concrete,” said Joan Marc Simon, executive director of the NGO Zero Waste Europe.
“It is impossible to know if the product is safe, repairable, recyclable, so from this point of view I think a digital product passport is important for consumers,” she added.
But the drive to create sustainable and durable products must go beyond the passport. There must also be processes in place that allow consumers to return products for repair.
The product passport in practice
Identifying the information users need along the supply chain is a huge job. For this reason, the European Commission will address the issue ‘product by product’ in delegated acts, said Neale.
The creation of the passport requires the entire supply chain to sit down and discuss crucial information that could prevent a product from going to waste. These discussions could also help alleviate fears that the passport contains information that infringes intellectual property rights, he explained.
“When it comes to intellectual property, privacy and so on, we have to make sure that it is handled through encryption or by making the data available at a later date. In any case, this will be done product by product and in full consultation,’ Neale said.
‘We are talking primarily about existing data. We are talking about a decentralised or distributed approach to data. It should not move from where it was created,’ he added.
One size does not fit all
Today’s consumers need clear, reliable and accessible information about the products they consume, their repairability and the best way to recycle them. However, it will be very difficult for product manufacturers and all professionals involved to create, share and distribute the necessary data in a simple and cost-effective way. The digital product passport is consistent and meets the criteria of sustainability and digital transformation, but it will be a real challenge for companies.
In short, the new regulatory framework will have positive effects in terms of product reuse and waste prevention, promote the implementation of the circular economy and thus the environmental sustainability of the economy. However, this new challenge will ultimately require the participation of all agents involved in the product value chain.