Closing the Loop

Deeper insights into the Circular Economy

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A Circular Economy by TU Delft

Simply put, my understanding of the circular economy has been waste equals food. However, I have just completed an online course (mentioned here previously) which has broadened that understanding and really shifted my perception of this highly promising approach.
The self-paced course focused on investigating the technical cycles of the butterfly diagram through short, snappy lectures and interviews with people from different industries. These case studies were highly valuable in proving that the circular economy is achievable and can be part of the crucial paradigm shift that mends our questionable relationship to materials and products and keeps us on the 2 degree target.

These are the key ideas that will stick with me:

1. The Circular Economy is based on four ideas: waste equals food, building resilience through diversity, using energy from renewable resources and thinking in systems.

2. Three quarters of material and energy resources are used in the material stage of a product and one quarter is used in the manufacturing stage. However, three quarters of employment and wages are in manufacture and only one quarter in materials. The shift to a circular economy involving things like reuse and repair, enforces the labour intensive processes during manufacture and reduces the need for material and energy intensive ones (preventing greenhouse gas emissions).

3. What does it take to close loops? The three main processes needed are acquisition, reprocessing and re marketing. We must innovate and design the right systems to enable these.

4. There are four types of value creation of the circular economy:
– Sourcing value which is a direct financial gain as you use less materials, create new markets and reduce risks
– Environmental value where the reduction of your footprint is not only a positive impact environmentally, but can also be communicated to stakeholders and aid compliance to policies
– Customer value which is achieved by being able to offer certain services to customers to retain their loyalty, satisfaction and interest
– Information value giving the opportunity to analyze product use and performance and thus improving design with this feedback (something you would get for free in a closed loop system rather than paying external parties)

5. The traditional product service model is product oriented. In a circular economy, focus will be shifted to result oriented (eg. paying per print for a copier) and use oriented models (eg. car sharing where access is bought)

6. The smaller the loop the more profitable it is, as Walter Stahel states in his ‘Inertia Principle’: “Do no repair what is not broken, do not remanufacture something that can be repaired, do not recycle product that can be remanufactured”.

7. There are a few design principles that will ensure that products work well within a circular economy:
– Creating attachment and trust
– Design for durability
– Standardisation and compatibility
– Ease of maintenance
– Upgradeability and adaptability
– Design for dis and re assembly

Where product integrity decreases with each factor (moving from the whole product to component level).

8. There is often confusion about the difference between repair, refurbishment and remanufacture, and what the value and opportunity for the latter are. Repair and refurbishing bring a product back to working condition, whereas remanufacture is a kind of rebirth of a product where everything that is not equivalent to new is replaced. The benefits of remanufacture include the ownership of materials and therefore reduction of virgin material costs, the opportunity to use remanufacture components as spare parts rather than newly manufactured ones, the confidence that end of life is handled properly, and the opportunity to learn from the products brought in after use.

9. By 2030 the EU economy could be €900 billion up as an affect of the circular economy as estimated in this report. A reduction in the structural waste in Europe (roads, buildings, infrastructure) will play significant role in achieving a more circular system, where the costs of mobility could decrease by 30/40% by 2050. The Resolve framework is the suggested method the report mentions: REgenerate, Share, Optimize, Loop, Virtualize and Exchange.

10. Fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry after oil, but not often talked about or visible. Recycling fashion usually only means downcycling but alternatives exist- mechanical and chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is a fairly well known process where clothes are shredded and processed into new yarn, however, this often damages fibre length and leads to lesser quality. The promising and and new concept of chemical recycling (which is not on the market yet) does not have the problem of fibre degradation, as fabric is broken down into basic chemicals, removed of all impurities, and built back up. This still needs a lot of research but has the capacity to get us to a circular textile industry.

11. Industrial ecology looks at entire systems of materials. When discussing metals, scarcity often comes up, but ecological scarcity will actually not occur anytime soon for any metal. Geopolitical reasons are usually to blame for scarcity, but a circular economy can spread the supply to urban mines which are more widespread and reliable (thus decreasing risk of single supplier). Urban mines are above ground stocks of metals, and since most energy is needed for the extraction and refining of metals rather than the secondary processing, making use of these could decrease environmental impact greatly.

…I hope you will have learned something new as well!

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