Comment: How we can all profit from a circular economy

circular economyThe circular economy provides a very real opportunity for sustainable growth and is essential to delivering a net zero future, says Lisa Coles PhD, head of circular economy, EPSRC, UKRI.

The global economy has been largely based on a linear model. We take resources from the planet, use them to manufacture complex and often over-engineered products, buildings and consumables and when they have reached the end of what we consider to be a, often very quick, useful life we dispose of them. This model is unsustainable.

We are using more resources than the planet could ever support; we are generating mounds of waste; we are polluting the planet; and we are damaging biodiversity. This model is also contributing to climate change. Every time we extract and process a resource and create a new product, we use energy, and we create carbon emissions.

Reducing the burden on the planet

Transitioning to a more circular model of consumption would alleviate many of these impacts, facilitating a more sustainable global economy and enabling greater resource security. There are many different definitions of a circular economy. At its heart we consider it to be about producing less; keeping the products, materials, and resources we do use and produce in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible; and then recovering them after use. This will reduce the resource burden we place on the planet, the waste and pollution we create, and the carbon we emit.

We should develop products and manufacturing processes that use as little resource as is necessary to deliver the intended function. We must reduce the number of products we produce and ensure those we do are designed to be reused again and again. When this is no longer possible, we should look to dismantle them and reuse the components within them. When it is no longer feasible to reuse, we should develop ways to remanufacture the components and finally, when they are no longer useable, we should recycle the embedded materials, reducing the need for new resource extraction. As a society we are taking steps to do all of this but there is a long way to go, and a lot of technical research and innovation still to be done.

The role of research and innovation

Industry strives to reduce the material it uses, but standards do not always support this. Research programmes, such the Future LiME Hub, are needed to demonstrate the safety of more resource efficient approaches and increase the use of recycled material and alternative feedstocks. Many of us own a reusable bottle and understand the importance of minimising single use packaging as driven by programmes like the Plastics: Redefining Single-Use project. We need to deliver this in other sectors. Designing out single use components like filters, designing reusable textiles and developing construction components which can be dismantled and reused.

As a society, we are very good at recycling at home, but we don’t always appreciate what happens next. There are a lot of different plastics that have to be recycled separately and many products that can’t be recycled at all. We need to technologies to make it easier to separate waste at scale. We must build on work such as that at the Faraday Institute to develop technologies and systems to recycle composite materials, complex products like electricals and batteries, and contaminated waste.

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These are only snapshots of some of the vast technical challenges that need to be overcome to achieve a circular economy but scaling circular systems across the economy needs more than new technology. It requires interactions and symbiosis between different sectors, industries, and supply chains. It needs new policies, legislation, business models and considerable changes to consumer behaviour.

A whole systems approach

Achieving circularity at scale is complex. It requires whole systems understanding which must be underpinned by reliable data. This is only possible if engineers and physical scientists collaborate with data scientists, social scientists, economists, designers and natural scientists and partner across sectors, with policy makers and with the public, as they do in the UKRI NICER Programme.

When we understand the whole system we can evaluate the trade-offs associated with different approaches. Understanding the carbon emissions, waste, and resource needs across the lifetime of a product or service allows industry, governments, and consumers to evaluate a system or systems, make informed choices and mitigate unintended consequences.

The circular economy provides a very real opportunity for sustainable growth and is essential to delivering a net zero future. Achieving it will require new engineering research and innovation, developed alongside new business models, new policy and widespread behavioural change. Scaling it will require whole systems understanding.

This is not just a challenge for those working “in the area”. If we are to achieve a more sustainable, circular, resource efficient future every new technology, material, and system needs to be designed with the principles of circularity in mind. Only then will we move beyond recycling and minimise our burden on the planet.

Lisa Coles PhD, head of circular economy, EPSRC, UKRI