Complementing the circular economy with LCA

The circular economy has gotten a level of attention that we shouldn’t waste. It has rapidly been positioned as an important vision that mobilises business strategies and governmental plans, clarifies the big picture and shows the connections, flows and feedbacks between systems.

Although the idea is inspiring, there’s still no clear view about how to transform circular economy into mainstream practice. We need to make sure that circular economy thinking will actually reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of products. From LCA, we know that closing loops is not always the best idea; it can even have negative consequences.

So how can we make the implementation feasible for companies? How do we speed up adoption while ensuring that the methods are employed where they are useful?

We need to understand the circular economy

‘Circular economy’ is often used synonymously with ‘closing loops’, which is a core element of it. However, the circular economy is much more than that. It is about creating value for the economy, society and business while minimizing resource use and environmental and social impacts via system thinking. This includes strategies such as redefining products and services. Some examples: offering a product on a service basis or extending its lifespan; using renewable energy; using renewable, recyclable or biodegradable resources; promoting collaborative consumption; creating symbiotic relationships where the waste of an industry becomes the input of the other. 

Complementing circular economy with LCA

To evaluate the impacts of the circular economy, applying a life cycle approach is highly beneficial. LCA can strengthen the propositions of the circular economy and the other way around.

LCA is a robust and science-based tool to measure the impacts of the new circular economy products and business models. It is a powerful methodology that can complement a powerful vision.

Simplified models of the circular economy and life cycle assessment, and their strengths

We can use LCA to complement the circular economy in three practical steps:

  • Test the assumptions of the circular economy business models
  • Recognize the limitations of the circular model and explore new, alternative approaches
  • Set objectives and continuously improve the circularity for practical implementation at the business level

Step 1: Testing assumptions at the product or service level. Sometimes, reality can be counterintuitive, which can lead you to assume there are benefits while there aren’t any. This has been shown in cases were closing loops causes negative instead of positive impacts.

Step 2: Recognising limitations and exploring alternatives. Identifying incorrect assumptions can help to rethink the approach because it pinpoints product hotspots (improvement opportunities) in all life cycle stages and within its supply chain. This can also be great input for designers and innovators to look into matters they may not have considered before. And since LCA models can be reused, it is possible to test the new assumptions reliably, quickly and easily.

Step 3: Setting objectives. The way to a circular economy needs to start from an operational product/service perspective, connect with the vision and strategy of businesses, and ultimately transform the economy. To do so, practical and concrete elements need to be introduced at the level of business processes, with indicators that help measure progress towards a target and foster continuous improvements.

LCA results give insight and help set priorities and define KPIs that are relevant and measurable. It also helps set a baseline for the product or service in question, so any improvements or deviations can be compared and progress can be monitored.

Continuous improvement of circular economy models

The best of both approaches

Circular economy is a great vision for mobilizing businesses and governments. However, it needs proven methodologies to make sure the vision results in concrete benefits for the environment and society. LCA can complement the vision with robust measurements, helping to ensure the feasibility of implementation at a product level.

Through LCA, is possible to test impacts of the circular business models, validate their assumptions and get feedback for improvement. In addition, it can help define targets and indicators to measure and foster circularity over time.

If you have any questions or comments about this complementary approach or have any other ideas about how you would make the circular economy more concrete, please get in touch

Soledad Contreras

Soledad Contreras worked for PRé as a Sustainability Consultant from 2014 to 2016. As a part of Consultancy team, she coordinated the Roundtable for Social Metrics and provided training in Life Cycle Thinking.

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