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Three essential changes needed to accelerate the shift to a circular economy

This year the term circular economy has come into the spotlight and worldwide searches reached anall-time highin October, as the need to move to sustain...

Nina Kaun, Director of Product Management, Elsevier
|Dec 28|magazine29 min read

This year the term circular economy has come into the spotlight and worldwide searches reached an all-time high in October, as the need to move to sustainable practices is growing more imperative. A circular economy is where resources are kept in use for as long as possible to extract the maximum value, then the materials are recovered and regenerated to be used again. The need to shift to a circular economy is clear – the global population is expected to swell to 8.6bn by 2030 and our finite resources cannot continue to be exploited. Alongside this there is growing pressure from consumers on manufacturers and industry to recycle and regenerate products as education grows around the current climate crisis. However, there are also commercial advantages for businesses making this transition, research also shows that a circular economy can net an economic gain of €1.8trn per year by 2030.

These drivers for the adoption of a circular economy have led Gartner to predict that circular economies will replace traditional linear economies (make, use, dispose) in 10 years. To prepare for this companies, especially those in the chemicals and materials industries, will need to make fundamental changes to the way they operate and consume materials, as non-reusable product lines will become obsolete which will threaten many businesses. They need to invest heavily in green R&D and the digital tools researchers need to make informed decisions about the materials they use.

Here are three important areas that underpin a circular economy and need to be addressed in order for industry to move to this model.

 

1. Reuse and keep products in use

In recent years there has been a focus on making products easily disassembled for recycling, a closed loop and only feasible for companies at scale. Whereas repair, reuse and remanufacture has been largely put on the backburner. Products and components should be restored, remanufactured, and put back into use wherever possible to prevent any materials going to landfill. However, companies must consider the market needs and what makes the most financial sense when selecting materials to reuse.

To keep products in use for much longer and remanufacture components companies need to rethink and redesign the way products are made. Companies also need to ensure they are re-checking safety and environmental regulations when re-using materials. Creativity, innovation and collaboration will be central to this, researchers will also need to access the wealth of research being published on the subject. It can currently be difficult to find the right information in the deluge of data available, therefore as an industry we need to invest in methods to accurately search for, access, retrieve and incorporate information into a researcher’s workflow.

 

2. Use alternative materials

Dynamic economic factors are generating challenges and risks for product lifecycles, putting increased pressure on decisions at chemicals and materials companies. Using the ‘right’ materials will be the crux of a successful circular economy and we need to move away from hard-to-handle materials which have high recovery costs. From PET to steel to a new crop of biopolymers, powdered metals, carbon-based compounds or the countless tons of organic materials that end up in landfills, each material has its own quirks and costs of recovery, which researchers need access to data on to make informed decisions on the risk-benefit pay off of each material they use. The industry should look towards the green chemistry movement to do this and, and follow the 12 principles to ensure sustainable development.

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However, this is not purely a matter of trading one material for another, all benefits and costs of materials need to be considered. This is illustrated by the fact that it takes four times as much water to produce a paper bag compared to a plastic bag, so it is not always a viable or sustainable alternative. A great example of making use of products that would otherwise go to waste was from green chemistry pioneer John Warner who devised a way to repurpose fishing nets as he could extract the nylon cover of polypropene, lead, pigment and other additives (Adidas turned the new nylon into a futuristic pair of knitted running shoes). However, when recycled materials are introduced back into the production line researcher need to ensure they have considered all the risks, hazards or “unknowns” associated to make sure it is safe and commercially feasible to do so.

 

3. Develop biodegradable products

A third core element underpinning the circular economy is biodegradable materials, which must be developed with sustainability in mind. Designing biodegradable products means eliminating hazardous substances, an important green chemistry principle. Thanks to the recent surge of impact of plastics, the development and availability of bioplastics made from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats, oils, corn starch and straw, but not all are biodegradable. 

Additionally, biodegradable products need to comply with industrial composability standards and be organically recycled. A key element of biodegradable products is the need to encourage separate collection of bio-waste and organic recycling for efficient waste management. Not all biodegradable materials can degrade in all environments. Depending on design, some materials may biodegrade more effectively in treatment plants while others may do better in soils. It is important to consider how these materials will be handled at end-of-life and whether they will end up in an environment that promotes their biodegradability.

 

Transforming tools and mindsets

The benefits to the planet from a circular economy can be substantial and it is essential to conserve the natural resources we have left. To make this shift quickly, more digitalisation and access to data concerning chemicals and materials selection across the value chain are needed; from product formulations to chemical toxicity to capital investments. Companies need to have the right tools to enable them to handle and understand the data available so they can make informed, rapid decisions on product design and development and support product lifecycle workflow objectives.

As other companies follow the pioneers in the transition from circular economy theory to practice, they are certain to encounter obstacles. This is to be expected as changing mindsets and cultures of time-tested approaches is difficult. But this transition is a must in addressing the challenge of the ever growing population and being commercially successful at the same time.