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 to 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 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!

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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, resulting organic matter enriches the soil, which sustains the growth of other plants, and 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:

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.