by Ad Lansink7 minute read
Zero waste, Cradle to Cradle design and the Circular Economy are all great concepts, presenting attractive targets to work towards. However, their ultimate feasibility is another matter. As we use and recycle products, won’t there always be some loss of material?
Across different technological and biological chains, time and time again we come up against the final impossibility of fully closing all loops. As a result, achieving a recovery rate of 90%, or even 70%, is hard work. Still, if we are to be guided by the target of zero waste we must examine the leaks in the flow of resources, and whether they can be stopped.
Plumbing the depths
During the 3rd International Conference on Waste Management at Pisa, Italy on 18th June 2015, honorary chairman Fabio Iraldo introduced my contribution on the relationship between the waste hierarchy and the circular economy with a presentation on leakages in circular resource flows, and ideas on how to reduce material losses. Afterwards, thinking about the dilemmas faced on the road to a circular economy, I was able to identify some additional leaks and potential solutions, presented in the diagram and table below.
These leakages occur at different points along the material-product-consumer chain, and relate to different technological, social, legal and economic aspects of both industrial and agricultural societies. Therefore, the repair works needed to stop the gaps will cover a broad spectrum of actions and measures, and it will hard to be certain of finding a solution to every possible problem. Nevertheless, listing and investigating possible leakages is essential if we are to rise towards the high aims of the circular economy.
One of the greatest hindrances is a kind of social stigmatisation (leak 1), whereby fears of negative consequences hinder the acceptance of products made from secondary materials. Similarly, some governmental rules may interfere with the use of recycled materials, constituting a kind of legal stigmatisation. The painful history of nappy recycling plant of Knowaste Europe in Arnhem, the Netherlands, illustrates this point: after seven years in operation, the plant closed in 2008 because demand for its paper fibres dried up.
There are several ways to plug this stigmatisation leak, including:
- defining fully guaranteed quality standards for secondary materials (if possible, on a legal basis);
- issuing generally accepted product passports; and
- improving public and social acceptance.
While consumer behaviour plays an important role (leak 5), good communication and reliable information are key elements. Freedom of choice and the market power of producers may influence buying behaviour, but gearing policy towards source separation in the case of paper, glass, metals and even plastics provides both a strong signal that secondary materials are safe – and further stimulates environmental awareness.
Moreover, financial incentives — such as lowering VAT for recycled materials or products — seem necessary to bridge the gap between primary and secondary raw materials. Of course, an alignment of taxes on primary raw materials is important, together with general or specific taxes on some products, ideally at a global — or at least European — level. This approach could be geared to benefit consumers, who might pay less in line with an increasing lifetime or acceptable durability index. Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult way, but worth trying if we’re serious about a more circular economy.
A well-known impediment to closing the loop is simply the normal ageing process of some basic materials. Paper fibres can be reused only five to ten times before they physically shorten to an extent that makes them unfit for their original purpose. Similar concerns apply to textile fibres and several plastics, and even certain metals, whose microstructure can change with repeated use. Furthermore, the costs associated with both cleaning and maintaining the technological viability of some elementary materials hinders their ability to retain a permanent place in the material chain (leak 8). Here, technological innovation – stimulated by appropriate incentives, research on new materials, risk analysis, and patent sharing – may reduce the loss of functional materials.
Better alignment between the interests of producers and consumers in developing reliable, long lasting products could boost technological developments. For example, new systems of material chain management could be supported by a shift away from “ownership” and towards “service” models of product use. The automotive industry appears to be setting an example for other producers, both in innovative design and developing leasing concepts.
Although the importance of source separation is well understood, some collection companies and municipalities still prefer post-separation (leak 6) because of its easy logistics and relatively high yield of packaging materials, especially plastics. The large volume of collected waste should justify the building of modern separation plants with sophisticated separation tools (e.g. with infrared techniques). However, it is very difficult to economically produce high quality secondary raw materials by this method, with output often falling below the requirements of industry.
In fact, the results of poor post-separation may be the same as downcycling the materials (leak 9). In general, downcycling may be transformed to upcycling by technological – and perhaps also financial – innovation. Looking beyond material recovery, creating new materials and applications (leak 8) with a longer lifespan is at least as valuable as straightforward reuse in terms of savings in raw materials.
However, there is a tension between the short-term interests of industrial producers and the long-term aims of society (translated in environmental and social policy) which may check the growth of the circular economy. Sometimes, careful and solid resource chain management clashes with the financial and economic interests of companies, which need a rapid turnover of goods to be certain of a reliable cash flow (leak 3). This issue is especially manifest where there are imperfect markets for primary resources (leak 4), for example resulting in overproduction of semi-finished products.
Variable market demand also plays an important role. Established recycling operations have been delivering metals, glass and even textiles and paper to the market for many years, and have learned to wait on better times when market conditions are unfavourable. However, for other, less established industrial fields, such as secondary plastics, market imperfections hinder optimal chain management because operators find it harder to function through the bad times. The solutions may be found in the continuing emphasis on resource efficiency, transparency of markets and usage of reliable accounting, sharing and clearing systems. Of course, looking for new markets and new applications may restore the balance between supply and demand, which is a condition for a healthy system of circular material management.
Going down the green pipe
The global scale of a large number of industrial activities — especially the production of bulk and consumer goods — hampers the international rollout of integral models for resource chain management. Infrastructural problems (leak 7), such as poor transport facilities, political difficulties, and not least environmental issues all have a great influence. Therefore, issues relating to the social, economic and environmental impact of one or more vital links in the material-product-chain (leak 2) may hamper the overall management of the chain, leading to irreversible losses of useful materials.
This vulnerability is exacerbated because of the energy content of many materials and (semi-finished) products. Making products from scratch, especially from primary raw materials, requires a lot of energy, which will be saved when the materials or products remain in the resource chain. Here, knowledge of the CO2-footprint may be helpful because of the decisive influence of climate policy in nearly all industrial fields. Furthermore, consistency with other legislation on materials is important, especially the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), the European law on dangerous substances. According to several recycling companies, REACH hampers the market for recycled materials by making overly strong prescriptions.
The debate around the European Commission’s new Circular Economy Package (EC-CEP) may provide a good opportunity for the necessary coordination between the precautionary principle and improved resource management. Put more generally, the implementation of the CEP and the adaptation of the European Waste Framework Directive to circular economy thinking is a challenge, both for the politicians of EC and European Parliament and all policymakers. While the Circular Economy may not be a water-tight concept, it can help us find the stoppers with which to plug the many leaks in our economic system.