Circular Economy - How today's products become tomorrow's resources
Circular Economy – How today’s products become tomorrow’s resources
Our current linear economy has led us to a scarcity of resources and big fluctuations in raw material prices. A way out of our problem: rethinking the value of our waste.
We will be borrowing from the future…again.
Earth Overshoot Day 2023 will be on July 27th, which means that all the resources that the planet can generate in a year will have been consumed when there are still 22 weeks to go before the end of the year. Compared to 2022, the date has been brought forward by one day. A large part of the problem lies in a linear economic system designed to create products and then discard them. In this chain, each of the stages of the value chain has its own interests and generates its own waste.
When a product is designed there is only one thing in mind: to produce a lot to sell a lot. This leads to extreme behaviours such as programmed obsolescence in which products are designed to break down and thus must be consumed again. Selling a lot also means extracting a lot. The extraction of raw materials is very aggressive to the ecosystem and the atmosphere. The methods used for distribution and transport of these materials are also very polluting. The 15 largest cargo ships in the world alone emit more harmful exhausts than half of the cars on the planet. Factories are not far behind either. Despite the recommendations of experts, factories process materials with highly polluting methods and generate a large amount of waste. At the end of this chain is recycling. Most consumer goods are not intended or at least designed to be recycled.
Today, only 10% of the raw materials extracted worldwide, are re-entered in the economic system by recycling1. The resources of our planet are certainly not infinite, which means today’s products must be viewed as providing the resources of tomorrow.
The radical change that is urgently needed.
So, how can we change the story to move forward into a future that is less wasteful? We need a radical change in which we focus on generating economic growth while preserving resources and the well-being of future generations. This new economic model must contemplate the entire value chain of products from the beginning: from the use of materials, product design, production process, and resource consumption, as well as the consumption and distribution model, so that valuable resources can re-enter the economic system.
To start with, instead of thinking about producing a lot, we can start thinking about producing better. Save as much as possible in materials and think of ways to make profitable the waste generated in the manufacturing process. Or think about how products can be reused, remanufactured, and recycled after their useful life.
“If it can’t be reduced, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.” –Peter Seeger
Successful Practices - Change requires everybody's collaboration.
Polymer Packaging in Detergent Industry
Out of 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced every year, 6.3 billion tons become plastic waste2. For the company “Frosch”, a manufacturer of washing, care, and cleaning agents was clear that recovering parts of those resources could not only be good for the environment but also for business. The company focused on creating packaging that is fully recyclable and made from one single material to be easily sorted and processed. With a large partnership across the entire value chain, like packaging manufacturers and machine providers as well as the waste management system, Frosch set up the RECYCLAT initiative. This initiative has enabled 50% recycled materials, gathered from the standard household waste, better known as “yellow bag”, to be used in the PET packaging. The remaining 50% comes from sorted-out deposit bottles3. Over the past 20 years, Frosch's focus on higher circularity has created a high level of consumer acceptance and trust and has positioned the company as a pioneer in the circular economy market. Sales have more than doubled from 305 million in 2012 to 617 million in 2021. The business with Frosch brand cleaners now accounts for 70% of Group sales4, 5.
Glass in the Automotive Industry
Plastic waste is not the only problem we face. About 75 million broken windshields are replaced each year around the world without an established system for recovering these materials6. In 2021, 79.1 million motor vehicles were produced around the world, an increase of 1.3% compared to 20207. These vehicles’ windshields will at some point end up in a landfill as well. Since the recycling process of laminated glass is very demanding and not fully matured, containing polymers, such as Polyvinylbutyral (PVB), cannot be extracted at the same quality as its raw material. As a result, the recycling of windshields was not economically attractive. However, this has quickly changed thanks to the company “Interface Carpets”, who realized that this low-grade PVB could find use in the production of their carpets. In collaboration with new partners, Interface developed a method to use recycled PVB from old windshields in place of the latex it currently uses. PVB is non-toxic, non-corrosive, and has a carbon footprint that is 80% lower than that of latex 8.
Thinking in a circular way allows us to create an economy that is designed to recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. By doing so, products that otherwise would be discarded in landfills become highly valuable.
Squeezing the most out of resources is possible; it is profitable and above all, it is necessary. If we manage to delay the day of overcapacity by 4.5 days each year, we would be back to living within the planet's limits by 2050. A paradigm shift in the way we look at our waste won't be easy, and it requires everybody's collaboration!
Further impactful examples of circularity are already numerous – what unites them all is thinking outside industry boundaries and accepting rapidly changing consumer behaviour. Do you want to learn more? Contact us.
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