EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

5.8 Circular Economy


This week, in Lesson 5, you are learning about various methods to minimize waste and to avoid putting that additional burden on the environment. Recycling is often thought of as a smart way to deal with waste – something we have to do to reduce the mess that has already been made. However, the same as with green chemistry principles, thinking is being shifted now from dealing with consequences of dealing with the root cause. In fact, recycling should become a part of the product design, so that its efficiency is maximized, and maximum of valuable material included in the product is recovered. In this case, more focus is put on salvaging the resource, rather than just keeping stuff off the landfill.

This way of thinking becomes even more urgent when we realize that for new emerging technologies, we need significant amounts of earth’s minerals that are actually limited. Those critical minerals and materials become strategic stocks for industries producing electronics, batteries, clean energy, aerospace, and other technologies that are going through massive scale-up. Design of closed recycling loops for those minerals is also a strategic task for manufacturers, if they plan staying in business for prolong period of time. For example, recycling metals such as Li, Co, Ni, Mn, rare-earth metals, graphite will be critically important for meeting the demands for energy storage and renewable energy. Thus, recycling becomes not only a key part of waste management, but also an integral link in the so-called circular economy.

Circular Economy is a relatively new term, which I wanted to put on your radar in this lesson. It builds upon the zero-waste concept, but actually goes beyond that. While encompassing stages of product design, and recycling technology, it also assumes establishing new sustainable supply chains for critical materials and strong partnerships among all players in the circle.

The concept of circular economy is not something we suddenly invented. In the nature, we see cyclic processes for matter and energy transformation functioning for millennia. This is the system where waste (as we understand it in society) does not exist! One good example to give here is a tree!

two large trees with sun shining through the leaves
Two Brown Trees

The tree absorbs water and nutrients from the soil and grows branches, leaves, fruits, and seeds. The fruits and seeds become food for animals and birds. Leaves are engaged in the photosynthesis producing oxygen, which is used for breathing by organisms. When leaves fall to the ground and decompose, the resulting organic matter enriches the soil, which sustains the growth of other plants, and the tree itself. And then the cycle starts all over again.

Speaking of biomimicry: can we design a technical supply chain system in which all the outputs from one segment of the system become the inputs to another segment of the system, just like it happens in biological environment?

Please watch this short video to learn more about the circular economy concept:

Video: Circular Economy Explained (4:58)

Credit: Systems Innovation. "Circular Economy Explained." YouTube. September 18, 2019.
Click here for a transcript of the Circular Economy Explained video.

Talk of sustainability is everywhere today, and along with it a growing awareness of the linear model of our existing economy. This linear economic model is captured in the popular description of the economy as a process of take, make, and dispose.

We take natural resources from our environment, produce a product, and push it out to end-users who then dispose of it. This used to not be such a problem. However, as the economy has grown in reached planetary limits, inputs are appearing more limited, and outputs have become increasingly detrimental to ecosystems.

To give us some appreciation for just how inefficient this overall linear model is, the Rocky Mountain Institute estimated in the year 2000, that the flow of natural materials globally is 500 billion tons per year. But only 1% is put into durable products and, still there, six months later, the other 99% is waste. As limits are increasingly met, the emphasis is now shifting from an economic model that is organized around gross throughput of material and energy in a linear fashion, to a new kind of circular economy, which shifts the focus to the internal organization of processes within which resources are used. It aims to optimize for the overall service delivered rather than the gross throughput of products. The circular economy is all about identifying and closing loops, so as to create self-sustaining systems, where producers and consumers are closely coupled to enable constant feedback. For example, food production, consumption, and disposal might be organized to be part of the same closed cycle. To do this, industries are studied as industrial ecologies so as to identify where and how resources and energy flow through them. Where they are lost and where processes could be interconnected to reduce those losses. In a circular system, resource input and waste emission and energy leakage are minimized by slowing closing and narrowing energy and material loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design maintenance repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, or recycling. This is a regenerative approach where things are being constantly repurposed to serve new functions.

The challenge of achieving a sustainable form of development, is shifting the emphasis from discrete one-off products to looking increasingly at how they can evolve through their full lifecycle. This is a fundamental switch in paradigm from designing systems that are inherently degenerative to systems that are inherently regenerative. Over time, developing a truly circular economy requires diversity and the interconnecting of different systems. Systems and processes that are all the same consume the same resources and produce the same outputs without the capacity to recycle them. It is only by connecting different systems in the right way that we can harness their diversity to create synergies between them.

The circular economy shifts the locusts from things to the synergies between them. Our existing linear economy is a product of analytical thinking, where we divide everything up and separate everything out so as to focus on specific activities and achieve economies of scale. We put housing all in the residential area, factories in the industrial zone, food production and farms etc.

In contrast, the circular economy is about integration so as to enable feedback loops and synergies. As Gunter Pauli notes, it is about using the resources available in cascading systems. The waste of one product becomes the input to create a new cash flow. Things in this circular model become Multifunctional. Instead of a building just serving a housing function, it becomes also an energy producer and consumer. A food producer and consumer. It may function as entertainment and recreation. This multi functionality works to not just close loops but also create more resilient systems because they are more self-sufficient and less dependent.

As the circular economy is not about any individual product or thing, it is rather about changing the organization of whole systems. It requires systems thinking. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes, the circular economy isn't about one manufacturer changing one product, it is about all of the interconnected companies that form our infrastructure and economy coming together. It's about rethinking the operating system itself.

Reading Assignment

"Circular Economy in Detail", Ellen Macarthur Foundation, URL: https://archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/the-circular-economy-in-detail,  Accessed: 2021.

On the website linked above, scroll down through the presentation slides to learn the key principles and definitions of the circular economy concept. Think of an example of the process or product that is already using these principles to effectively save the mineral resources. Think of another example - a process that urgently needs innovation to prevent fast resource depletion. Usually, resource depletion problem rises upon the scale-up of a particular process.

This lesson homework assignment will be on the concept of circular economy. See the instructions on the Summary and Activity page of this lesson and in Module 5 in Canvas.