The circular economy has enormous potential in helping us dramatically reduce human impact on our planet. To unlock that potential, we need to maintain the value of materials throughout their full life-cycle and avoid unintended consequences. Here’s what that means and how it can help drive innovation.
Humanity has been in environmental overdraft since 1970 and our resource extraction exceeds our planet’s capacity at a rate of 1.75 Earths. Current estimations suggest just 7.2% of all material inputs into the economy are cycled back as secondary materials. Continuing with ‘business as usual’ will lead humanity toward an uncertain future, where dwindling resources will very likely accelerate the global conflict crisis.
A report by scientists at Imperial College London, University College London and Yale University among others, highlights a life-cycle perspective as a key approach to managing resources sustainably and reducing our environmental impact. To better understand what a life-cycle perspective means, we must first define what the circular economy is.
What is circular economy?
The circular economy is a regenerative, sustainable economic system that aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, minimising waste and pollution. It prioritises activities higher up the waste hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle), avoiding disposal including incineration (with or without energy recovery) and landfill.
It is a departure from the traditional, linear economic model, which assumes that we have an infinite supply of natural resources which can be consumed to prolong a state of economic growth. This is often referred to as ‘take, make, dispose’.
The circular economy works on three principles:
1. The elimination of waste and pollution
2. The circulation of products and materials
3. The regeneration of natural systems.
For example, around 60 million tonnes of electronic waste (e‑waste) is produced globally. Less than 20% of this achieves circularity (recorded as recycled, recycling, refurbishment and reuse). This is an incredible loss of critical raw materials which have high carbon emissions associated with their raw material extraction, processing and manufacture of finished electrical goods. Put simply, by recycling more or maintaining products in their use-phase for longer (refurbishment), we would extract less and do less harm to the natural environment.
If a circular economy is implemented across global systems including the food system, the built environment, manufactured goods & consumer products, then we may reach sustainability and balance the needs of a modern society with the protection of our planet. We could:
- Reduce environmental impact
Current material extraction levels could be cut by 30%, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cut by 39% by 2032 and there would be the added benefit of reductions in waste, water pollution, and other environmental impacts.
- Increase resource efficiency
Repairing, reusing and recycling in the textile industry alone can potentially have an environmental impact 70 times lower than the production of new clothes.
- Boost economies
Transition to the circular model could grow the economy by $4.5 trillion and create up to 6 million jobs globally by 2030.
What is a life-cycle perspective and why is it important?
The report published by the International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) outlines ten insights and recommendations for policymakers and governments looking to establish a successful circular economy. At the top of the list is adopting a life-cycle perspective.
A life-cycle perspective considers all phases in a product’s life, from the extraction of raw materials to its fate at end-of-life. Applying this approach prevents ‘burden shifting’ which is the transfer of environmental impacts from one part of a product or service’s life cycle to another.
For example, to make an appliance more energy efficient to use, we might have to rely on a manufacturing process that is energy intensive. There may also be harmful chemicals involved. Those impacts early in the product’s life cycle offset the energy savings later on when it is used.
Life Cycle Assessment, or Life Cycle Analysis, (LCA) can be undertaken to decide which manufacturing route is most sustainable. This is a process that systematically evaluates the environmental impacts of a product or service over its entire life.
The LCA of a plastic bottle might show that most of its environmental impacts occur during manufacturing and end-of-life. This information can then be used to develop strategies to reduce the environmental impact of plastic bottles, such as using recycled materials in production and designing bottles for easier recycling. That said, the assessment process has its constraints which must be carefully considered in its application.
The limitations of a Life Cycle Assessment do not prevent its implementation
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy, has outlined some of the limitations of LCAs. These include: prioritising short-term benefits; focusing on quantifiable metrics like carbon emissions but overlooking hard-to-measure impacts such as biodiversity loss; and inconsistent data collection.
Despite these limitations, LCAs can still be one useful tool amongst others to envision a circular economy as a long-term goal. The Ellen MacArthur foundation outlines several ways to apply the model successfully in a circular economy. Among these are identifying the product life cycle stages that can have the greatest environmental impact, consistency in comparisons between similar solutions, and making sure to test against changing external factors such as access to energy.
Lastly, using LCAs throughout product development, including the later stages of innovation when more data is available, can be particularly useful for scale-up or system improvement.
Innovation with a circular life cycle
Innovation with sustainability at its heart can contribute to a circular economy. CPI has worked with partners that have circularity embedded in their innovation processes.
Worn Again Technologies has a pioneering polymer recycling technology to reuse raw materials from textile waste. We helped Fiberight scale up their processes for converting cellulose derived from municipal solid waste into sugar, and demonstrating the onward fermentation of the sugar into higher value products. Our investment in Descycle will help scale up their non-toxic, deep eutectic solvent technology for extracting high demand metals from e‑waste while leaving non-metal components intact. Oceanium is creating bio-packaging from sustainably farmed seaweed that could replace plastic packaging in a circular economy, while Stuff4Life is producing longer-lasting workwear made of valuable raw materials reclaimed from discarded protective clothing and uniforms.
We simply cannot carry on extracting the Earth’s resources and generating waste without continued harm to people and the planet. The circular economy is an economic model that prioritises sustainable resource management. It therefore has the potential to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as resource scarcity, waste and climate change. We are proud to work with entrepreneurs and businesses working towards a circular, sustainable future.
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