Introduction to the circular economy

Among the various efforts to push the industry towards more  sustainability, the adoption of a circular economy could lead to significant reductions in waste production. Callum Tyndall finds out more. 

The push to increase society’s sustainability is steadily moving beyond individual product changes and approaching acceptance of the fact that, in order to make real impact, it is vital that systemic changes are made at all levels. This is partially due to regulatory structures that look to make future business outside of the sustainable mould untenable, but it is also, in no small part, a result of oncoming regulations, as corporations pivot towards new, sustainable models of business. 

One such model attracting increasing attention is the adoption of a circular economy. 

The idea of a circular economy is that, rather than the current approach (in broad terms) of take-make-dispose, the system would instead look to minimise waste and maximise the use of resources. In basic principle, such a system already exists in the form of established recycling schemes, but a true circular economy would see far more wide-reaching, systemic approaches to decreasing waste. 

Resources: pushing towards regeneration and renewability

Given that a circular economy is founded upon the idea of getting the most out of resources and minimising the level to which they are wasted, any successful circular economy must first ensure that the initial resources are renewable. Brands opting to use finite materials will need to have their stocks carefully controlled and managed, while pushing for development of sustainable alternatives and material regeneration. 

This is perhaps the most widely recognised element of moving towards a circular economy, given the push to minimise the use of fossil fuels and the slow shift towards a renewable power system. While power has been the main focus in this area, circularity will require extending the same approach to renewability to all material usage and generation. In dealing with resources, we must look to dematerialise where possible, while pushing towards regeneration and renewability in all other areas. 

Manufacture: optimising resources – refurbish, reuse, maintain

Manufacturing is the area where we start to see the cascades of circularity occur. Provided that the renewability of materials has been guaranteed at the resource stage, it is here that there is perhaps the greatest chance for systematic leakage as elements move from parts manufacturer to product manufacturer to service provider. It is essential to optimise resource management from the earliest stages so that, by the time a product reaches a customer, waste has been minimised and it is easy for the consumer to begin the loop back to the first stages of manufacture.

Shifting manufacturing towards circularity will not only require the use of renewable materials but also an increased ability for manufacturers to reuse and refurbish materials on a large scale. At the service provider level there will also have to be realignment towards maintenance, rather than replacement. Biological cycles will play an additional role in this area, through means such as the extraction of biochemical feedstock.

Consumers: increasing responsibility and enhancing collection infrastructure

The circular economy model requires a new sense of responsibility to be established at all levels of product life cycle. While recycling has become commonplace, it will need to become more comprehensive, particularly as there is likely to be more diversified recyclables. Furthermore, consumers should begin to consider sharing resources at a greater scale. Sharing of assets and encouraging second-hand use reduces the amount of new materials being pulled into circulation.

More importantly however, the development of collection systems will be vital to ensuring success at this stage. Ambitious near-term targets for plastic collection have been set by regulatory bodies such as the EU but, without proper investment in infrastructure to handle that collection and its ultimate end at recycling facilities, such goals will remain lofty ambition. From the point of collection, the real circularity begins as resources start to cascade back to manufacturers. 

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