Let’s talk CIRCULAR. What is circularity and how to implement this into your business?
We have noticed, suddenly, that everything is ‘circular’. But is this true? Or is it greenwashing? When can companies and brands assert that their product is circular? And how would you know whether they are making valid circular claims?
No clear definition of circularity
There are many different definitions of a circular economy, which makes it difficult to measure ‘circularity’. First and foremost, you should be aware that there is no official definition yet, and what we today refer to as “circular” may become outdated in a few years/months. Therefore, terms such as ‘greenwashing’ in this area are hard to point out.
What is a circular economy?
Developed from concepts including Industrial ecology, regenerative design and Cradle to Cradle the first concept of circular economy (CE) emerged in the 1990s and gained more popularity this last decade. CE is an alternative to linear supply chains, where resources are extracted, processed, manufactured, transported, sold and then disposed of. This method of organising supply chains appears to waste energy and resources, since valuable materials are discarded before they can be used to their full potential. Also, disposing valuable materials and not reusing them puts even more pressure on virgin resource extraction and intensifies resource scarcity.
Waste as a resource rather than just being disposed of, that’s what the CE stands for. CE also promotes the creation of durable products that last longer and are fit for purpose instead of being disposed of. CE aims to decouple economic growth from supply chain resource throughput. For example, post-consumer textile waste can be supplied to a recycler that regenerates and upcycles new yarn from this. Moreover, bio-based products can be returned to the environment to replenish nutrient stocks and can help to restore ecosystem health. CE also encourages the use of renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels. Also, companies can use it to have their product made of modular components to construct products or infrastructure such as Fairphone. When there are changes that need to occur, e.g. repairing the product, it can be easily taken apart, repaired, refurbished and reused, without requiring demolition.
The outline of a Circular Economy figure above by the Ellen MacArthur foundation shows diversity in types of measures that can be applied to follow CE. A difference between biological and technical cycles is being made, there is energy recovering and the products are already developed within a circular system. CE is not only about environmental impacts or new economic models, but it also tries to influence social impacts. CE aims to limit environmental externalities, such as air pollution and toxic chemical use, which can harm human health.
Product approach circular comment
So if we look at a certain product, we should look at the levels of circularity. In the 10R diagram of the Circular Economy (Cramer 2017) each “R” is described. The higher you are on the ladder, the better in terms of circularity. Perhaps you can name 1 specific R to your developed product, or perhaps even more. Just remember: the higher, the better…
Circularity should include a systems approach
According to the forerunner organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we should not only ‘simply’ have a circular product approach, but look at the business model as well. System change follows these elements:
A) Closed cycles (like an ecosystem, no waste, like take back systems)
In a circular economy, material cycles are closed following the example of an ecosystem. Waste does not exist, because any residual flow can be used to make a new product. Toxic substances are eliminated and residual flows are separated in a biological and a technical cycle. Producers take their products back after use and restore them for a new use life (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a). In this system, it is therefore not only important that materials are properly recycled, but that products, parts and raw materials remain of high quality in these cycles (Korhonen, Nuur, Feldmann & Birki, 2018).
B) Renewable energy
The energy required to fuel the circular economy should be renewable by nature, to decrease resource dependence and increase systems resilience (to oil shocks, for example). This will be further enabled by the reduced threshold energy levels required in a circular economy (Ellen MacArthur foundation 2015a).
C) Systems thinking (all stakeholders are part of this system and should be considered)
In a circular economy, systems-thinking is applied broadly. Many real-world elements, such as businesses, people or plants, are part of complex systems where different parts are strongly linked to each other, leading to some surprising consequences. To effectively transition to a circular economy, these links and consequences are taken into consideration at all times.
Is your product biodegradable or compostable?
Let’s look at these words. What do they mean? I’ve added here explanations of (home) compostable vs biodegradable:
If something is biodegradable, it can be disintegrated by micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi or another biological process.
Plastic can break down into carbon dioxide, water, and a few other things eventually. Technically they are biodegradable but the key thing is to take note of how long it takes for the product to biodegrade.
There are schemes and standards to certify that a material biodegrades in a specific environment within a specified timescale. Industrially compostable materials are biodegradable within the conditions and timescale specified in industrial composting standards but they do not biodegrade in home composting (lower temperature) conditions within the same timescale. Thus, the term ‘biodegradable’ is very broad and can easily be misinterpreted. As pointed out by European Bioplastics, ‘biodegradable’ by itself is not more informative than the adjective ‘tasty’ used to advertise food products.
While designing packaging for recycling comes with the advantage of keeping material value in the economy, designing packaging for composting can be valuable for targeted applications: it offers a mechanism to return biological nutrients from the contents of the packaging that would have otherwise been lost, such as the residue of packaged food, back to the soil in the form of fertiliser.
Home compostable materials are always also industrially compostable. However, in contrast to industrially compostable materials, home compostable materials can be treated at ambient temperatures and the timeframes for biodegradation and disintegration can be longer. Moreover, parameters such as moisture content, aeration, pH, and carbon to nitrogen ratio do not need to be controlled.
(sources: Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation New Plastics economy)
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