Closing the 'Circular Economy' loop

Closing the ‘Circular Economy’ loop

Recycling organic waste is surprisingly easy – recycling non organic items is a whole lot harder. Which just goes to show how complicated we have made our stuff. Organic waste can now be composted in a windrow or anaerobic digester. It can also be used to produce energy in a number of ways and converted to gas. It is the non-organics – the composite stuff which is way more difficult.

Simple circular economic theory teaches us that we should deal with end of life materials in a certain order, called “closing the loop”. This is best explained by looking at the Butterfly Diagram below, courtesy of eDX in collaboration with Delft University and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Circular Economy
Circular Economy – eDX/Delft University & Ellen Macarthur Foundation

At the top we have the raw materials including metals, plastics and fruit and vegetables. These go through a number of processes including manufacturing or preparation in the case of meat and arrive in the hands of the consumer – the big circles three quarters of the way down. On the left are the organic (green) materials and on the right are the non-organic (blue) materials.

The important bit is what happens when the consumer has finished with the materials, be it a computer or the scraps of a meal. In the linear economy these go straight to landfill – at the bottom – as waste.

The theory of the circular economy is that these materials are not waste and can be reused in a number of ways. Hence the circles on either side of the diagram which show that the materials do not go to landfill and are reintroduced back into the chain at a higher level.

Reuse, recycle, recover – the ‘Circular Economy’ is vital to our survival

On the left the organic material can be reused in a cascade of uses; the composting and waste to energy solutions. Ultimately the organic material can be deconstructed and used as biochemical feedstock. This is relatively simple, quick and cheap.

The non-organic materials on the right-hand side of the image are way more complicated. Hence the number of circles. We start with the easiest and shortest circle. If possible, repair the product before discarding it. This is a problem in our consumer minded societies where it is cheaper and easier to throw an appliance away and buy a new one.

The next loop is reusing or redistributing the appliance so that it remains in use longer and we don’t have to buy a new one. If you don’t want it someone else may. The next loop, remanufacturing, applies mainly to industry. When a truck engine has reached its end of life it can be melted down as steel or it can be reconditioned and sold as a reconditioned engine with new warranties. Reconditioning the engine uses less materials and energy than a new engine.

Lastly there is recycling loop where the materials are re-engineered so that they can be used as raw, but not virgin materials, in the manufacture of new products. This is the longest loop.

The largest loop in the ‘Circular Economy’ is the most complex… and most important

Circular economic theory teaches that the shortest loop is the cheapest to implement and the most efficient in saving energy. If you can repair a washing machine it is cheaper and less energy intensive than giving it away or recycling it. It also requires less materials as some of the existing materials can saved which means we don’t have to mine as much new materials.

It will take time but the groundswell to adopt the circular economy is well under way in advanced economies, particularly in European countries. At this stage it is probably at industry level with pressure on governments to start enacting laws to regulate it.

In South Africa we are just starting but there is a growing awareness on the part of organizations and some are actively seeking our assistance in implementing the principles of the circular economy. Adopting the circular economy is an imperative and the sooner we start the less painful the transition from a linear economy will be.

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Picture: WikiMedia