5 roads to a circular economy – Part V: circular supplies

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 business models. In our circular economy miniseries, we’ll address five ways to apply the circular economy in your business and how LCA can contribute. Today: circular supplies.

The ambition of the circular model is to keep resources in circulation for as long as possible. This means replacing scarce resources with fully renewable, recyclable or biodegradable inputs, thereby reducing resource consumption, waste and the depletion of non-renewable resources. When products reach the end of their functional life, useful elements should be extracted to be used again. To best allow this to happen, companies should already consider opportunities for circularity in the product development phase of their products.

Adopting the idea of non-economic benefits

The idea of recycling materials already dates from before the circular movement, but then it was often driven by economic benefits. For example, aluminum recycling is often mentioned as one of the success stories of recycling. Approximately 85% of the aluminum used for the building and construction market comes from recycled aluminum. This high recycling rate is mainly due to the fact that recycling aluminum only takes a small fraction of the energy needed to produce virgin aluminum. This makes using recycled aluminum very economically sound.

For a lot of products, using recycled inputs is still beneficial, even when there are no such clear economic benefits to drive the idea. This is where the circular approach needs to be adopted: a shift in mindset from direct economic value benefits to a long-term value perspective. At the moment, we are seeing two inspiring approaches for recycling, namely tackling the big waste streams and closing the loops.

Tackling the big waste streams

Awareness about how the bigger waste streams are threatening our environment is growing. Finding value in these waste streams by using them as a resource to create products could have great benefits for the environment. An inspiring example is the limited-edition Ecover bottle which is made from plastic recovered from the ocean and Amsterdam canals. Or the G-star Raw collection made from recovered plastic from the ocean. Both are not only beneficial for the environment but also very strong marketing campaigns.

I personally like Knowwaste, which is tackling a far less appealing waste stream: used nappies. The UK-based company recycles absorbent hygiene products which they collect from washrooms, hospitals, nursing facilities and childcare facilities. They specialize in sterilizing and separating the materials to recover plastic and fiber that can then be used to make new products, such as roof tiles, plastic components or fiber-based construction and commercial tubes.

Closing the loop

The ultimate goal of the circular economy is to bring waste streams back into the supply chain as a resource. Leading companies in this area are Patagonia and Interface. Both companies have sustainability ingrained in their core values. They have tackled all elements of circularity and as a result, they have strong recycling schemes to reclaim their products. Both companies bring their products – clothes and carpets, respectively – to the market with an increasing percentage of recycled content.

Clothing manufacturer H&M has also set up an admirable circular scheme. In 2015, it produced over 1 million products with at least 20% recycled material from collected garments. H&M has even offered a €1 million prize for new technology to recycle clothes without reducing the fiber quality.

Outside the apparel industry, as well, there are a growing number of initiatives that close loops: for example, bricks made from waste products. The first house built from waste bricks is being built in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The bricks are made from waste from the ceramics, glass and insulation industry and from rejected clay from traditional brick manufacturing.

First steps

Tackling the big waste streams and closing the loops can be daunting for companies who have just started circular thinking. Using fully renewable or biodegradable inputs can be an easier first step. Switching to renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar energy, for example, is often relatively easy. A growing number of leading companies such as Ikea, Nestlé, Philips and P&G have already made the commitment to switch to 100% renewable energy. Alternatively, it is worthwhile to look into using completely biodegradable materials. An inspiring example is the Carlsberg’s green fiber bottle, made from sustainably sourced wood-fiber that is 100% biodegradable and bio-based, generating zero waste.

Using LCA to validate the actual benefits

It is always good to think about tackling big waste streams, closing loops or using renewable or biodegradable inputs, but is also important to validate if your plan would actually benefit the environment. LCA can help you to assess this, and prevent you from making decisions just because they feel or sound good.

As my colleague Marisa pointed out in her mythbusters article, the processes of recycling (collecting, sorting and processing the materials) also impact the environment. My colleague Soledad demonstrated that bio-based products also have impacts.

Doing an LCA will give you insights into whether intuitively obvious benefits are actually there, and will show you where there are opportunities to make your circular supplies even more environmentally friendly and truly beneficial for your company.

Make recycling mainstream

It is clear that there are many admirable initiatives working with circular economy ideas and LCA validation. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives are small in scale. Often, they are hindered by difficulties in collecting and transporting materials and in finding waste streams that are reliable and consistent in both volume and quality. The increased cost associated with recycled materials is also often a barrier, as most consumers are still not willing to pay a premium price for more sustainable products.

Despite all this, the initiatives show the potential and growing awareness among consumers. I have faith that in the coming years, we will be seeing many more exciting recycling initiatives, inspired by the circular economy and backed by LCA.

Learn more about circular economy and LCA

If you want to learn more about the topic or learn more about how to maximize the benefits of product life extension, do not hesitate to get in touch. Or read the other stories of our mini-series:

Anne Gaasbeek

Senior Consultant

I believe every organisation can be triggered to make a positive change, with the right information and action plan. I enjoy helping organisations get there by translating complex sustainability metrics into actionable information.

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