Developing the sustainability potential of circular processes through the application of systems thinking

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By Rachel Meidl, Vilma Havas and Brita Staal

Over the past decade, the circular economy concept has become a central pillar of many governments and corporate sustainability strategies. Circular economy as part of a sustainable business model was incorporated into official state policy in Japan and Germany as early as the 1990s and in China since 2002. China’s National Development and Reform Commission recently launched its 14th five-year plan period (2021-25), Strengthening the circular economy as a national priority. The corporate world jumped on board in 2013 when the global network of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded from 100 companies that joined the “Circular Economy 100”. Two years later, the European Commission published its ambitious one Circular Economy Action Plan. Today, parts of the circular economy concept are embedded in common business models such as car and flat-sharing communities, deposit systems and zero-waste movement. The scope, understanding, and interpretation of the framework vary widely around the world with multiple definitions and applications. Overall, however, is Aim of circularity is the creation of closer and closed energy and material cycles through circular and regenerative deliveries, new development of materials, resource reclamation, sharing of platforms, product-as-a-service programs and extension of the product lifespan through remanufacturing, reuse, resale, repair and reconditioning .

The circular economy should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a possible approach to further developing the sustainability agenda. However, sustainable or, better, regenerative systems should be a basic principle of the circular economy. Circular processes are not necessarily sustainable from the outset, but they have the potential if the the global net sustainability of the system is improved. There are many examples of presumably circular processes in which improving social, environmental and economic sustainability over the entire life cycle is controversial, such as the global trade in plastic waste of inferior, poorly marketable polymers with the intention of recycling, which ultimately leads to a multitude of negative externalities. CA half of all plastic waste is exported worldwide, a fifth of it has no market value and is therefore disposed of inappropriately in the importing country, which has consequences for social and ecological justice for vulnerable and marginalized population groups in the importing countries. Although the act of recycling can be viewed as a circular business model, it can be from a systemic point of view to question the concept of circularity.

A sustainable circular economy cannot be founded on a restrictive linear system that ignores the opportunities that a circular system opens up – new investment opportunities, novel business models, innovative products and technologies, reduced primary resource extraction, greater resilience, avoided risks and improved social ones Benefits such as quality of life and job creation. A fundamental change is required to achieve this.

There is no panacea for the urgently needed system change. On a planet with finite physical boundaries, infinite economic growth is impossible, and no single technological solution can change that equation. Both the appeal and the paradox of the concept of the circular economy is that it provides a way to overcome resource scarcity and overuse while enabling economic growth. The development of regenerative business models and economies based on circulating resources and appropriate life cycle assessments can be good for the triple bottom line and give us the opportunity to free ourselves from ecological tipping points. ON current report estimates the total annual market opportunity to replace existing materials with those made from captured CO2 (and thus be regenerative) at $ 5.91 trillion worldwide, with the three most important global markets being fuels ($ 3.82 trillion), Building materials ($ 1.37 trillion) and plastics ($ 0.41 trillion). To go a step further into the area of ​​circularity, CO2-based materials would be developed that are reusable and recyclable and have a balanced system sustainability profile. Reforming the linear model into a more regenerative, sustainable and resilient model offers socio-economic value and business opportunities. The detachment of the business world from path dependencies and technological ties of the current, linear value chains requires progressive policies that reduce inertia and increase the pace of economic transformation.

The urgency of thinking at the system level is made clear by the increasing accumulation of waste in the ecosystem and the criticality and scarcity of raw materials for production. The demand for multiple materials will increase sharply in the coming decades, especially in the energy sector, which will open up new alternative technologies. The World Bank Group estimates that when moving to a low-carbon future by 2050, the Production of minerals will increase by almost 500 percent to meet the demand for electronics and clean energy technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles and battery storage. The increasing demand has driven up the cost of many rare earth minerals, which strengthens the economic viability of alternative resource extraction methods, e.g. deep-sea mining. The repair, recycling and reuse of products should be explored, as well as improving product design using alternative materials that help reduce the demand for raw materials. Recently, Closed Loop Partners and ERI launched a strategic partnership Strengthening innovative circular economy supply chains for improved recycling of electronic waste (e-waste), one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world.

It is imperative that all actors along the value chain conduct due diligence that addresses ethical and environmental issues related to the development of innovative technologies, products, and processes, and incorporate system-level principles that assess the life cycle impact for a real perspective of sustainability. For example, the potential effects of solar systems on a large scale are still largely unexplored. These include, for example, increased land competition that exacerbates biodiversity loss, water use, or indirect land use changes, and the lack of end-of-life options for panels currently being exported, landfilled, or incinerated. Despite the lack of consensus on what constitutes a circular economy, the application of circularity principles to products, processes, practices and operations has the potential to gradually lead society towards a more sustainable future, so that over time we can move towards a positive global net sustainability can work towards.

Rachel A. Meidl, LP.D., CHMM, is a Fellow in Energy and Environment at Rice University’s Baker Institute-Center for Energy Studies.

Vilma Havas, Ph.D. is a consultant at SALT Lofoten / Co-Founder & Co-Chairman of Nordic Ocean Watch

Brita Staal is Head of International Affairs, SALT Lofoten / Chair of the Board of Directors, ClimatePoint


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