The circular economy offers a new approach to achieving sustainable economic growth. Replacing a linear model where products are made, used and disposed, the circular economy calls for a reconsideration of how resources are managed and how waste is perceived. It is based on circular mechanisms in which products and materials can be reused, repaired, refurbished, remanufactured and, ultimately, recycled.
The United Nations has made a similar appeal for sustainable economic growth through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals, at the core of its blueprint for building a better world by 2030, call for the promotion of prosperity while simultaneously protecting the environment and addressing social problems, such as poverty and hunger.
In a recent article published by the Journal of Industrial Ecology, the authors mapped the 17 SDGs and their targets and concluded that circular economy practices contribute to a significant number of SDGs and directly or indirectly impact 49 SDG targets. These include SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 15 (life on land).
Many of the circular economy practices towards achieving these SDGs cited in the article have broad social and economic implications. Nevertheless, certain IEC activities that focus on circular economy practices directly impact SDG 7 and SDG 12. These activities address resource management, specifically energy efficiency and material efficiency.
According to Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of the IEC Advisory Committee on Environmental Aspects (ACEA), “in order to achieve economic growth and sustainable development, we must reduce our ecological footprint by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources, and the way we use resources to produce energy. The efficient management of resources, and the way we dispose of waste and pollutants, are important targets to achieve these goals”.
SDG 12 calls for responsible consumption and production. Circular economy practices of reducing and eliminating waste through intelligent design, as well as keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, help to achieve this goal.
Material efficiency calls for a reduction in the consumption of natural resources by ensuring the efficient use of material within products and keeping the material in use for as long as possible. As Blaszkowski notes, “products need to be designed using less material, with intention of lasting longer and with the possibility to extend their functionality and lifespan through upgrades, reuse, repair, refurbishment and remanufacture”.
IEC has published a number of standards that support material efficiency. For example, IEC 62309 examines the dependability of products containing used parts and IEC 63077 specifies the process for ensuring the performance and safety of refurbished medical imaging equipment. Other standards include IEC 62402, which establishes requirements for obsolescence management and IEC 62430, which provides the requirements for the environmentally conscious design of products. Standards currently under development address product circularity in the design of products and the refurbishment of medical equipment.
New standards will also be needed to ensure that data removal and security are considered to allow products to be reused and to change ownership. As legislation worldwide covering material efficiency evolves, assessment standards will be needed that can qualify the contribution to material efficiency aspects. For example, they could indicate the proportion of reused components or recycled content in products or the ease with which a product can be repaired or remanufactured. And given that the majority of supply chain costs derive from the design of a product, new standards supporting circular ready designs are fundamental to help organizations transition smoothly towards circular products. According to Blaszkowski, “international standards are fundamental to deliver upon the needed changes”.
The United Nations has recognized electricity as the cornerstone for economic development. SDG 7 calls for affordable and clean energy. This is directly related to one of the principles of the circular economy: the regeneration of natural resources.
As Blaszkowski explains, “resource efficiency also takes into account that sufficient water, air, oil, minerals and other resources are available for delivering well-being to a world population of nine billion in 2050, while maintaining the quality of the environment, addressing climate change and reducing loss of biodiversity”.
To achieve this goal, greater reliance on renewable energy is necessary. IEC Standards and Conformity Assessment Systems enable the safe and efficient use of renewable energy, including solar, wind and marine energies, whether integrated into the grid or installed off-grid to help remote communities access electricity. The IEC has also published the IEC TS 62257 series which evaluates stand-alone renewable energy products for rural electrification.
Energy efficiency is another means to manage energy resources. Improved energy consumption of electric and electronic devices has been an important objective for many industries, and, in some countries, legislation has supported this goal. The IEC has developed a number of standards that allow for energy efficiency to become consistently measurable, comparable and reportable. It also offers several certification schemes through IECEE.
Standards have a vital role in ensuring sustainable economic development. Already, IEC Standards on renewable energy, energy efficiency and material efficiency help better manage the Earth’s resources and achieve the goals set out in SDG 7 and SDG 12.
However, more standardization work will be necessary in order to promote circular economy practices. As Blaszkowski concludes, “the circular economy, and specifically material efficiency, will influence standardization in such areas as safety, energy efficiency, performance and EMC. A holistic approach is needed to ensure that none of these areas is overlooked as we seek to provide protection to the environment”.