Circular economy meets environment and health – opportunities and risks

WHO/Marco Martuzzi

The WHO European Centre for Environment and Health hosted a meeting entitled “Circular Economy meets Environment and Health – Opportunities and Risks” on 4–5 October in Bonn, Germany. One of the objectives of this consultation was to facilitate the involvement and discussion of the health sector, with the main partners and actors dealing with the circular economy, and start the development of a consistent position for the health sector.

The meeting included experts from the European Environment Agency (EEA), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and other international organizations, including funding agencies like the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, academia, think tanks, civil society and the private sector.

In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible. Waste and resource use are minimized, and when a product reaches the end of its life, it is used again to create further value. Circular economy is a means to sustainable consumption and production, which features in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 12. Also, in the 2017 Ostrava Declaration of the European Environment and Health Process, Member States agreed to promote sustainable production and consumption.

Interest in circular economy and implementation on the ground is rapidly growing worldwide, as it can bring major economic benefits, contributing to innovation, growth and job creation. The implications for human health are manifold, but not well known, as the health sector has been relatively absent from the circular economy discussion so far.

Health benefits of the transition to a circular economy

Potentially significant net health benefits can be gained during and following the transition to a circular economy, which will contribute to achieving sustainable development. However, there is also the risk of adverse health effects if this transition does not adequately take into account health implications and health equity considerations.

A review of potential health implications from transition to a circular economy highlighted many knowledge gaps, in particular in the nature of negative impacts, for example in the case of the possible diffusion of noxious chemicals, the severity and frequency of exposures and the extent of different health endpoints. It was also noted that such negative impacts often frequently fall disproportionately on vulnerable groups.

In collaboration with partners and key actors, WHO will further investigate this area, and will complete an assessment report on the circular economy and its implications for human health in 2018.

WHO/Europe acknowledges the financial support from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) for of this meeting.