Using data to assess the circular economy

Access to data helps make better informed decisions. Recent technology developments now make it possible to collect and store vast volumes of data for analysis. Combined with the use of artificial intelligence, data can be explored for trends and patterns that would not have otherwise emerged.

(Photo:Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay)

The use of big data has driven the work of the economist Raj Chetty who uses data to understand the equality of opportunity in the United States which, in turn, can inform government policy. Data has also helped to better understand the spread of the Covid-19 virus and how to mitigate its propagation.

And as Lord Kelvin famously noted, “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind”. Data insights enable informed decision making.

In an attempt to implement a new economic model that calls for the continual cycles of recovery and restoration of products and materials, known as a circular economy, data can serve an important role to assess circularity. Information on energy, material and waste can be used to better manage these resources as well as to find ways to reuse them.

In an article on circular economy indicators published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, the authors argue that indicators can be classified into different measurement scopes. These include those that measure physical properties from the cycles and others that measure the effects of these cycles on the environment, economy, etc.

For the electrotechnical industry, data related to material efficiency and the use of renewable sources for electricity are considered to be the most relevant. Material efficiency is an essential part of the circular economy. It consists of the preservation of materials, by making products more durable and repairable, and facilitates the recovery and recycling of material at the end of the product life.

Accessing data

In a recent IEC networking session on the circular economy, IEC TC 111 expert Walter Jager explains, “There is a lot of information that is needed to really try and understand what level of circularity has been implemented on specific products or services.”

However, the electrotechnical industry faces certain challenges in data collection and management given the complexity of the supply chain. As Jager remarks, “We are not just dealing with a product with a few different materials associated with it. Instead we have thousands and thousands of components and materials and products. Tracking all of this information with regard to the level of circularity that has been put into a product is a significant challenge.”

With a circular economy, new types of information will need to be collected. This will include, for example, information about the amount of recycled content within a product or its components. However, there currently is no mechanism to track this information “short of putting it, for example, into data sheets associated with components or with materials”, observes Jager. “But that is an extremely labour-intensive mechanism and is not going to drive the type of efficiency necessary in order to help bring costs down for implementing a circular economy.” Other types of information about the product that could be useful to assess its circularity include its reliability and durability, how easy it is to repair and disassemble, as well as the availability of spare parts.

To improve circularity, information needs to flow with the material in its circular loop. For example, manufacturers will need to make information available about the materials used in their products to assess the circularity of the materials and provide information to recyclers in order to facilitate material recycling or reuse of parts. Information about the composition and history of parts and materials for reuse and recycling also needs to flow from recyclers to secondary material producers and component suppliers and then to manufacturers so as to ensure that the reused and recycled parts and materials meet performance requirements and comply with applicable legislation.

How standards can help

Given the large number of suppliers and the different components made up of different materials in the electrotechnical industry, standardized mechanisms will be needed.

According to Jager, “We need to have standards that enable a common language to be used between the supplier and their customers in order to communicate that information. Without that kind of standardization, it is a huge effort to try and put that information together.”

Material declaration has been one area where standards have enabled the successful reporting of chemical substances used in products. The new edition of IEC 62474 provides information on what needs to be reported and how to do so, including a separate mechanism for the exchange of data throughout the supply chain. Jager notes, “Systems have been put in place to improve data flow through the supply chain regarding what materials and substances are in products. We now have a push regarding a full substance declarations or full material declarations.”

Next steps

In assessing circularity, it will be necessary to incorporate additional information into supply chain material declarations. This information will be needed not only to investigate the opportunities for improving material efficiency and circularity but also to assess the possible trade-offs that will likely occur in the design of products. For example, a balance may be necessary between durability and repairability when designing products and will likely depend on product application or other issues such as safety.

As Jager notes, “I think it has become a significant question that a number of people and a number of organisations are trying to tackle right now. Within the IEC, we are definitely looking at data to try and support the electrotechnical sector. The interrelationship between supply chains across multiple industries is also prompting the IEC 62474 standard to be migrated to an ISO/IEC dual logo standard that supports all products and industries.” The proposed dual logo standard is a response to legislation that covers a broader scope of products as well as the increased convergence of technologies. “This proposed standard will consist of a modular framework that enables additional declarable information to be included to meet the emerging requirements for circularity.”

A holistic approach may be necessary in order to assess the net impact on, for example, the environment, society and the economy. “You can't implement one aspect of circularity and then implement another aspect without considering that they may potentially be in conflict”, remarks Jager.