Over the past few years, the Circular Economy vision has gained wide traction among decision-makers as well as the general public. To what extent this vision however is compatible with existing life cycle and resource efficiency based approaches was objective of a workshop organized by the FSLCI at the end of January 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The industry-focused workshop “Circular Economy, Resource Efficiency, Life Cycle Innovation: Same objectives, same impacts?”, brought together representatives from various companies such as BASF, Evonik, Henkel, and Steelcase.
One of the most important outcomes of the workshop was the need for a clear and internationally accepted definition of what constitutes a Circular Economy approach. Furthermore it was suggested that any such definition needs to be accompanied with a quantifiable measurement approach that could guide the implementation efforts and help track the implementation progress. In addition to these key conclusions, the workshop report below highlights a number of challenges and opportunities of implementing the Circular Economy vision.
The report has been drafted by the FSLCI and reviewed and revised by a number of workshop participants. It is meant to be a starting point for an open discussion on the subject, hence we encourage anyone to comment below and engage with us in a dialogue about the suggestions and conclusions outlined in the report. We are looking forward to hearing your feedback!
If you like, you can also download our workshop report here:
The workshop report makes some reasonable, although not new, points. MacArthur’s original Circular Economy principles remind me very much of Robert’s Natural Step principles, both in content and nature. One characteristic of principles is that we sometimes have to make compromises around them. In light of that, seeking a working, operationally-useful definition of the Circular Economy is likely to resemble the quest for the Holy Grail; pursuing it might well divert resources from practical efforts to protect the environment and improve the human condition.
Many Circular Economy discussions, like that at this workshop, seem almost to assume a world containing only short-life and semi-durable consumer products made from fossil and mineral resources. While these abound, the diversity of products needs more recognition; on the one hand consider low-value products made from abundant resources – minimally transformed – for which circularity is both thermodynamically and financially challenged, on the other hand bear in mind extremely durable products such as basic construction products for houses or wooden furniture, for which product-service business models are challenged by numerous details. Don’t, either, forget food and drink.
Further, certain trends need treating with more scepticism, for example the idea that “collaborative consumption” is necessarily more circular (or sustainable). The European Environment Agency’s new report “Circular by design: Products in the circular economy” (De Schoenmakere et al 2017) is creditable for its more nuanced perspective on some current trends in product design.
We certainly need to build an economy that functions within the Earth’s Planetary Boundaries. The Circular Economy principles are relevant to that aim and undoubtedly useful; whether they are either sufficient or always necessary to achieve it is debatable.
I have a problem with CE, Cradle to Cradle and life Cycle Thinking – they seem to me to be just fads – new angles promoted by new egos to promote different facets of Life Cycle Environmental Impact Assesment (LCIA or LCA). Cradle to Cradle seems to me to be no different to LCA other than carrying an implicit agenda of recycling which is already included more appropriately in most full LCA’s as part of the waste disposal activity. CE seems to also carry this agenda for recycling, both approaches implicitly imposing the assumption that recycling IS ALWAYS better for the environment and preserving resources.
BUT LCA done properly so often shows that recycling is not automatically the best approach because: If you manufacture a product, you need it to be distributed to as large a market as possible it it is to be profitable. To recycle this product, you must overcome the entropy of that distribution and use lots of transport energy just to sorrt it form all other wastes, collect it all up and get it to a recycling facility. That consumes a significant amount of depleting resource (oil) and generates significant pollution before a single molecule of product is actually recycled. Even consumer sorted wastes still now need multiple collection journeys to collect the sorted wastes. This means that it is impossible for most initially low impact products to be recycled with a lower impact than their original production. For combustible products it is often lower impact to leave the product in mixed waste and incinerate with cogeneration and waste heat recovery and flue gas scrubbing, still permitting metals to be recycled from the ash. LCA reveals this, Cradle to Cradle ignores alternatives to recycling and CE is a whole movement to promote reuse/recycling and where this is for high impact materials/products like metals, plastics, glass, electronics etc. then I’m on-board, but not for everything.
As for Life Cycle Thinking, I think that this is for organisations that want to appear to be doing the right thing but have no intention of actually doing a comprehensive LCA to really find out what the right thing is. It is used to justify activities that folk think is the right thing but are not prepared to really find out. In many cases it wil result in reduced impact, in many more it is really an exercise in clever marketing and Greenwash.
Dear Nigel, thanks for your feedback, though I’m not sure whether you’ve read the report because we very much outline that indeed – as you correctly highlight – recycling is often not the best solution and thus emphasize that material circularity isn’t always the best option. Hence our objective here is very much to engage the Circular Economy community on these and other issues which still need to be addressed as outlined in our report.
As for Life Cycle Thinking. I firmly believe that you first need to engage with people to help them understand why it is important to take a systems / holistic perspective (Life Cycle Thinking) before starting a discussion around the value and insights generated from a full scale LCA. It’s about changing the way of thinking first, because once you’ve achieved that, actions (and thus the possible application of tools such as LCA) will follow!
Agree with Philip!
Both Circular Economy and Life Cycle Thinking have their roles to play in moving the dial on sustainability forward. The critique that almost all sustainability concepts might seem alike is right, but it is also important to note that each of them cater to different audience and stakeholders, and therefore differ accordingly. Progress can be catalyzed when practitioners of different concepts of sustainability, like in this case: Life Cycle Thinking and Circular Economy are aware of each other, collaborate, and share knowledge.
Congratulations on the report, FSLCI!