Yet, in the long term, this economic model is unsustainable. The population of the world is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, exacerbating the demand for scarce resources. Landfills are filling up rapidly, with municipal waste generation expected to reach 2,2 billion tonnes by 2025, compared with 1,3 billion tonnes in 2012, according to the World Bank.
A new economic model is emerging that re-evaluates our current approach to production and consumption. It calls for a paradigm shift across society in which products, components and materials are viewed as regenerative and restorative. An increasingly popular topic, the notion of a circular economy is gaining traction not only among environmentalists and academics but also within governmental and business sectors.
The IEC is examining the requirements for the circular economy. Exploratory studies are underway in the Advisory Committee on environmental aspects (ACEA), which provides guidance to the Standardization Management Board (SMB) on issues related to the environment, as well as in IEC Technical Committee (TC) 111, which develops horizontal standards related to environmental issues.
e-tech spoke with ACEA chair Solange Blaszkowski and with Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, who leads the new ACEA task force on the circular economy, to gain a better understanding of this topic.
According to Blaszkowski, the concept of a circular economy is a reconsideration of how resources are managed and how waste is perceived. It affects the entire lifecycle of a product, from initial design and the materials employed to the use of the product, its repair, reuse and the transformation of its parts into a new product.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading advocate of the circular economy, describes it as:
…a systemic approach to the design of processes, products/services and business models, enabling sustainable economic growth by managing resources more effectively as a result of making the flow of materials more circular and reducing and ultimately eliminating waste.
A circular economy is based on the effective functioning of existing (circular) mechanisms such as extending product lifetime, reuse, repair, refurbishment, remanufacture and recycling.
Koskinen gives the example of a mobile phone that is no longer needed. Instead of being discarded, it can be sold or given to a family member for their use. Should the phone break down, it can be repaired rather than replaced. Likewise, it can be upgraded to extend its functionality – for example by increasing its storage capacity. Eventually it can be resold or disassembled for the extraction of its parts, some of which will include secondary raw materials that can be recycled and used for other products.
However, the recycling of materials is viewed as a last option since only some of the materials are able to be recovered while others, especially those present in only small amounts, are lost. As Koskinen comments, "it is very easily misunderstood that a circular economy is about recycling. Giving another life to your mobile phone has more value than putting it in a recycling bin where only some materials can be recycled”.
Treating waste is currently viewed as a (negative) cost. In a circular economy, however, waste is instead viewed as an asset with inherent value. It is a resource that can be put to new use. Blaszkowski provides the examples of a digital imaging and printing company and a healthcare provider in the Netherlands which both include "asset recovery" as part of their business model. They strive to keep their devices in operation for as long as possible and, when devices must be replaced, the useful parts in the original devices are given a second life in, for example, new devices or are reused as spare parts for other devices. To adopt this approach, these companies focus on ensuring that their products are robust and easy to repair rapidly – for example by screwing in parts rather than gluing them together.
The term material efficiency is often invoked when discussing the concept of a circular economy. However, according to Blaszkowski, “this term, often used in Europe, is generally misunderstood since only the properties of the materials themselves are considered”. Instead, she notes, “we should think of material efficiency as the conservation of materials”. It is about making products more durable, resource-efficient and recyclable.
The circular economy should not be viewed as merely a means of maintaining consumption at current levels. It is different from resource efficiency which calls for the use of fewer resources to achieve the same outcome, but does not challenge the current linear economic model. Instead, Blaszkowski observes, “we need to change the mindset of manufacturers and users and the whole system around it as well as the economies that support these systems”.
Creating a circular economy will affect all participants in the product value chain: manufacturers and their business models, consumers and their behaviour and the waste management industry.
For manufacturers, the circular economy impacts products from the moment of their initial design. As Blaszkowski says, “you can have a product with a long life but is not repairable for e.g. safety reasons, or a product that lasts less, but is easily repairable. Trade-offs must be made based on product application”. She lists a few examples that need to be considered, such as what type of materials – whether raw or secondary – to use, whether components can be reused, extending product usability by allowing upgrades to new technologies, improving the durability of the product and the ease with which it can be repaired as well as making it easy to retrieve certain materials when recycled.
Many hurdles exist with current business models. “Business models should be open to making products that are as robust as possible, easy to refurbish or remanufacture or use components that can be retrieved and reused in new or reused products”, says Blaszkowski.
Manufacturers may also be reluctant to reuse components or materials if quality is not assured. Some take-back schemes for unwanted products generally involve only those that have been produced by the original manufacturer since this affords the best traceability in terms of the quality of the materials used. And, because the recycling process varies between countries, the results will not be consistent.
Standards can be an important tool in promoting a circular economy. They can provide tools to measure aspects such as the durability or upgradeability of a product, the ease with which it can be repaired or recycled and ensure the quality of recycled materials. “Standards are needed for the entire supply chain”, Blaszkowski comments.
Consumers will need to change current behaviours such as the continuous acquisition of the latest product models. New habits will need to be adopted such as the repair or upgrade of existing products, the use of second-hand goods and the adoption of product lease models. New services will need to be developed such as shops that can repair or refurbish products.
As Koskinen observes, “it will require a change from society as a whole and not only, for example, the economy”. These changes will need to take place simultaneously across society. She remarks, “there is no point in manufacturers making products that can be repaired if consumers do not get them repaired, or if repair shops do not exist or the repairs are very expensive”. Blaszkowski adds that there is little point in having manufacturers design products that are easy to recycle if a system is not in place to recycle the materials or able to guarantee the quality of its recyclates.
Education will be essential. As Blaszkowski comments, “it is always a question of education and the effort made to educate manufacturers and consumers to get them to learn new ways of thinking”.
The IEC is currently at the preliminary stage of determining what actions can be taken to support a circular economy and material efficiency.
The ACEA task force on the circular economy is surveying TCs in order to gain a better understanding of which TCs are affected by material efficiency and the circular economy, how they are affected and what type of support they may require. The results and recommendations will be discussed at the next ACEA meeting taking place alongside the IEC General Meeting in Busan, Korea.
Based on the results of the survey, ACEA may decide to include the topics of the circular economy and material efficiency in the next edition of the IEC Guide 109, which is used to provide TCs with environmental considerations to take into account when developing electrotechnical product standards. Alternatively, ACEA may decide to publish a new guide dedicated to the circular economy. As Blaszkowski says, “we need to talk to TCs to understand what actions could be important”.
IEC TC 111 is preparing a study which provides an overview of the current status of the circular economy around the world with a specific focus on regulation and standardization. It will provide recommendations on what activities TC 111 should undertake in the near future.
Both ACEA and IEC TC 111 are collaborating with ISO TC 207 which handles environmental issues and has established an Ad hoc group on the circular economy. Possible joint activities under discussion could include the development of basic concepts and terminology related to the circular economy.
Implementing a circular economy will require the involvement of many groups and it is likely to take time to educate all segments of society. As Koskinen recognizes, “it is a big change. We are talking about a system change”.