Unlocking the sustainability potential of circular processes by applying systems thinking

By Rachel Meidl, Vilma Havas and Brita Staal

Over the past decade, the concept of circular economy has become a central pillar in many governments and corporate sustainability strategies. The circular economy as part of a sustainable business model has been adopted in Japan and Germany since the 1990s and in China since 2002, as part of official state policies. China’s National Development and Reform Commission recently released its 14th five-year plan (2021-25), making the circular economy a national priority. The business world got involved in 2013, following the creation of the global network of 100 companies of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation joining the “Circular Economy 100”. Two years later, the European Commission published its ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan. Today, parts of the circular economy concept are integrated into common business models, such as carpooling and housing services, deposit systems and the zero waste movement. The scope, understanding and interpretation of the framework vary widely across the world with several definitions and applications. However, the overall goal of circularity is to create tighter and closed energy and material loops through circular and regenerative supplies, material reengineering, resource recovery, sharing platforms, programs. product as a service and extending the life of the product through remanufacturing, reuse, resale, repair and refurbishment.

The circular economy should be seen as a possible approach to advance the sustainable development agenda rather than as an end in itself. Sustainable regenerative systems, if not better, should however be a fundamental principle of the circular economy. Circular processes are not necessarily sustainable by default but have the potential to be if the net overall sustainability of the system is improved. There are many examples of presumably circular processes where the overall lifecycle improvement of social, ecological and economic sustainability is questionable, such as the global trade in low-quality, low-market polymer waste plastics with the intention of recycling. which ultimately leads to a multitude of negative externalities. About half of all plastic waste is exported globally, a fifth of which has no market value and is therefore inappropriately disposed of in the importing country, resulting in social and environmental consequences for vulnerable and marginalized populations in rural areas. importing countries. Although the act of recycling can be seen as a circular business model, from a systems point of view, it can challenge the notion of circularity.

A sustainable circular economy cannot be based on a restrictive linear system that ignores the opportunities that a circular system opens up: new investment opportunities, new business models, innovative products and technologies, reduced extraction of primary resources, more great resilience, avoided risks and social improvement. benefits such as quality of life and job creation. Fundamental change is needed to achieve this.

There are no quick fixes to achieving the system change we urgently need. On a planet with finite physical boundaries, infinite economic growth is impossible, and no single technological solution can alter this equation. The appeal and paradox of the concept of circular economy is that it offers a way to overcome the scarcity and overexploitation of resources, while enabling economic growth. Developing regenerative business models and economies, based on circulating resources and properly framed life cycle assessments, can be good for the triple bottom line and allows us to move away from ecological tipping points. A recent report estimates the total annual market opportunity of replacing existing materials with those derived from captured (hence regenerative) CO2 at $ 5.91 trillion globally, with the top three global markets being fuels ($ 3.82 trillion). dollars), building materials ($ 1.37 trillion) and plastics ($ 0.41 trillion). Taking a further step in the field of circularity would consist in designing reusable and recyclable CO2-based materials with balanced system sustainability profiles. There is socio-economic value and business opportunities in reforming the linear model to a more regenerative, sustainable and resilient model. Detaching the business world from path dependence and technological lockdowns of today’s linear value chains requires progressive policies that reduce inertia and accelerate the pace of economic transformation.

The urgency of thinking at the systems level is highlighted by the increase in waste that accumulates in the ecosystem, as well as by the criticality and scarcity of raw materials for production. The demand for several materials will increase sharply in the coming decades, especially in the energy sector which will tap into new alternative technologies. The World Bank Group estimates that in the transition to a low-carbon future, by 2050, mineral production will increase by nearly 500 percent to meet demand for electronics and clean energy technologies such as as wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles and battery storage. Increasing demand has driven up the cost of many rare earth minerals, strengthening the business case for other methods of resource extraction, such as deep seabed mining. Repair, recycling and reuse of products should be explored as well as improving product design using alternative materials which will help reduce the demand for raw materials. Recently, Closed Loop Partners and ERI entered into a strategic partnership to strengthen innovative circular economy supply chains to improve recycling of electronic waste (e-waste), one of the growing waste streams the fastest in the world.

There is an urgent need for all actors in the value chain to conduct due diligence that addresses the ethical and environmental issues associated with the development of innovative technologies, products and processes and to integrate principles at the system level that assess the impacts of the life cycle for a true perspective. sustainability. For example, the potential impacts induced by large-scale solar installations remain largely unexplored. This includes, as examples, increased competition for land that intensifies biodiversity loss, water use or indirect emissions from land use change and the lack of end-of-life options. life for panels that are currently exported, landfilled or incinerated. Despite the lack of consensus on what defines a circular economy, the application of the principles of circularity in products, processes, practices and operations has the potential to gradually guide society towards a more sustainable future, so that we may work towards achieving positive global net sustainability over time.

Rachel A. Meidl, LP.D., CHMM, is an energy and environment researcher at the Baker Institute-Center for Energy Studies, Rice University.

Vilma Havas, Ph.D. is advisor at SALT Lofoten / co-founder and co-president of Nordic Ocean Watch

Brita Staal is the Head of International Affairs, SALT Lofoten / Chairman of the Board, ClimatePoint

This editorial is a continuation of a series of books on the subject written by Rachel Meidl, including a guidance note:

Baker InstituteUnravel the principles of circular economy, sustainability and waste management

& an editorial :

MORE FORBESA circular economy does not necessarily translate into sustainability

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