5 roads to a circular economy – Part III: reusing waste

In a circular economy, the intention is to produce no waste or pollution. Instead, products, parts and materials are used, cared for, repaired, reused and recycled as much as possible. This requires new and innovative approaches to business, and assessment methods such as LCA to measure the effect. In our circular economy miniseries, we’ll address five ways to apply the circular economy in your business. Today: reusing waste.

Circular economy focuses on changing the thinking from a traditional linear production cycle to a circular system. One focus is on understanding how traditional waste can be used elsewhere, whether earlier in the production of the product that created the waste or in the production of another product altogether. Looking at waste from a circular economy perspective, you argue that ‘waste is a resource in the wrong place.’ Resource recovery is a key part of making an economy circular. There are two main ways to think about this.

Preventing material leakage

First, eliminating material leakage from the production cycle. This is actually the easier of the two concerns to address: reduced material leakage usually translates into cost savings and increased efficiency, which is interesting for any company. Also, anything within the control of the company and within the walls of the facility is typically relatively easy for the company to control.

In many corporations, waste, in particular, is a major issue. A great example of a company addressing this is DSM, which has created Decovery, a line of plant-based resins for paints, coatings, and inks that is made primarily from sugar, starches, and naturals oils derived from agricultural waste, thus using ingredients that do not compete with the food chain. Thinking about this from an LCA perspective in addition to a circular economy perspective, this approach reduces the impact of the farm system by sending the waste to a new, useful product.

Creating a closed-loop system

The second aspect to consider is the end of life of the product. In a circular economy approach, such a cradle-to-cradle and integrated closed-loop system, a product reaching the end of its useful life can be turned into something new. In other words, waste from a discarded product is now the primary resource for developing or producing a new product. Meticulously closing these loops can be challenging, because it is difficult to control what a consumer does with a product at the end of its life.

E-waste, or Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is a major problem for landfills, for example. Electronics can be difficult to recycle and many recyclers just export e-waste to developing countries. IBM’s end-of-life-management operations processed 20,800 metric tons of end-of-life pre- and post-consumer products in 2019. Out of these collected tons, IBM recycled, resold, or reused 95%, while only landfilling or incinerating 0.8%.

From a life-cycle perspective, using recycled products reduces the need for raw materials to create a new product. It also reduces the impact of the initial product at end of life.

Making the circular economy feasible with LCA

The companies mentioned in this article have not only reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills but also reduced their costs in the process. Some more great examples of using circular economy concepts to address waste can be found in the article “Trash to Treasure” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, or the book Waste Valorisation: Waste Streams in a Circular Economy which provides a comprehensive review of waste chemistry and its applications in several industries. By changing our thinking to see waste as a resource rather than a cost, we are one step closer to achieving a circular economy system.

Of course, it is important to quantify and analyze the options that are available for recycling, reuse, and end-of-life recovery. Not all of them may be equally beneficial. An excellent, science-based method to help you decide is LCA. LCA and SimaPro are excellent tools to make the concept of circular economy feasible and more than just an inspirational idea.

Learn more about circular economy and LCA

Would you like to maximize the benefits of product life extension? Learn more about our approach and customer stories or simply get in touch

Other stories from our circularity mini-series:

Paula Bernstein

Paula Bernstein worked for PRé from 2013 to February 2018. Her areas of expertise included environmental product performance, LCA databases, and supply chain sustainability measurement. Paula collaborated structurally in LCA and sustainability metrics implementation projects for many industries, such as apparel, food, and building & construction. She also worked closely with the PRé software team to implement databases in PRé’s software package SimaPro.

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