Circular Economy

28/01/2020 | Sesotec

Circular economy – how it will change our lives

What goes in can’t come out again. Rubbish heaps are a thing of the past and old materials are made into new products – the circular economy is going to be a key pillar of modern waste policy. What possibilities does it offer? What advantages does it have for the plastics sector? We explain the most important issues and concepts related to the circular economy.

What does the circular economy refer to?

Every year, Germany generates more than 50 million tons of domestic waste. Much of this is valuable raw materials. Alongside metals, plastics are also a highly significant share. Almost every product contains plastic – a material created from crude oil. Cars are one-quarter plastic. But even furniture, cosmetics, electronic devices and in particular a great deal of packaging are made from plastic. When they reach the end of their lives, these products often end up in waste incineration or landfill facilities. Only some of them are recycled. This is quite a waste of resources.

The circular economy aims to make intensive use of all materials obtained at some point from the natural environment and to subsequently return them to the manufacturing process as raw materials. For example, in a functioning circular economy, a plastic bottle would be refilled as often as possible before being shredded – and then used again as a raw material for new bottles or other products. Eight recyclable PET bottles is all it takes to manufacture one football shirt.

Many countries are tightening their waste laws to create closed systems. They are doing this to preserve natural resources and protect the environment. The European Parliament estimates that a circular economy would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2%–4% annually. There are also cost effects: this system could save around €600 billion, which is equal to 8% of the annual revenue of EU companies.

What does a “linear economy” mean?

A linear economy is best described as a throwaway culture – the opposite of a circular economy. This wasteful way of behaving is rooted in the industrialisation process that took place over 150 years ago. That is when people began to process raw materials on a massive scale. The resulting products were sold and then simply disposed of later on. There was hardly any recycling. This has led to the loss of huge quantities of valuable materials up to the present day. Since plastic spread into all areas of life following the Second World War and harmed the environment, the downsides of this linear economy have become clear. There is 150 million tons of waste floating in our oceans alone, and three quarters of it is made up of plastics.

History of the circular economy

The idea of a circular economy is not a new one. Rather, it was the basis of how humans worked for millennia and can still be found in many developing economies. Everything from straw to kitchen waste and excrement to the work performed by animals is part of the same system. Industrialisation and the urbanisation that followed suppressed this sustainable economic system.

British economist David W. Pearce introduced the modern concept of the circular economy in the 1990s, which originated in the concept of industrial ecology. This involves minimising the use of resources and strengthening clean technologies. The German government adopted the Circular Economy Act back in 1994 with the intention of encouraging waste recycling. The “cradle to cradle” principle is an update of this idea, developed by German chemist Michael Braungart and US architect William McDonough.

What kinds of circular economy are there?

Seamless recycling is still impossible today. For example, only 14% of all plastic packaging is recyclable.

As of now, it is indeed the case that many used materials can be reformed and recycled, but these often lead to low-quality products. This works until the remaining components are no longer reusable – which can be the case after just a few re-uses.

Our waste cycle is an open loop, as materials leave the loop during the process and end up being disposed of as waste.

However, the trend is moving in another direction. Researchers are working at full speed on new types of plastics that can be used for a long time and as often as possible. Their work will help to close the loop.

Open and closed loops – what are the differences?

In an open loop, materials are also sorted and recycled. In general, however, they are not enhanced. In other words, the materials degrade every time they are recycled. Plastic becomes more and more opaque and brittle until it leaves the loop. So the open loop leads once more to the creation of new waste that cannot be recycled, only now that happens at a point in time farther into the future. This means natural resources are used for a longer time but the actual problem remains.

The idea circular economy, in contrast, is sustainable in the long term. The aim is to recycle used material indefinitely without losing quality. That is already possible today with aluminium cans. Almost all of the material disposed of can feed back into the manufacture of new drinks cans. There are still limits to the closed-loop circular economy, because dirt and toxins build up in many recyclable materials and make recycling more difficult.

Cradle to grave

The “cradle to grave” concept outlines an economic system that has predominated in most states to date: raw materials are extracted from the earth and processed. These often become low-quality products with a short lifespan that quickly end up in incinerators or landfill. The “cradle to cradle” principle, in contrast, describes a very different way of behaving.

Cradle to cradle

The concept is linked to the idea that every material is the source material for another product, creating an eternal loop. Anything extracted from the natural environment remains part of this system – without any loss of quality. If the principle works perfectly, no more waste is generated. To realise the idea, however, a number of basic principles have to be fulfilled:

all products have to be manufactured in a way that does not harm humans or the environment. In other words, you can divide them into materials that can be recycled and those that are biodegradable. It only permits waste that is also a nutrient.

So if it were properly sorted in a technical loop, the steel used in a car would become a new vehicle body. The plastic built into the cockpit would be created in such a way that it could also be used to make new products. In contrast, tyres and worn seat covers would enter a biological loop. The materials made from natural rubber or ecologically produced cotton would rot and could serve as fertiliser for new plants. Of course, these biodegradable materials would also be recycled as often as possible in the technical loop.

Another precondition is the use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, because emissions such as greenhouse gases or nitric oxides are also a form of waste. Of course, solar installations and wind turbines must also be manufactured on the basis of the “cradle to cradle” principle. In other words, their components should either be properly sorted and recycled at the end of their lifespans or rot in a biologically clean manner.

Diversity is a key aspect of “cradle to cradle”, because uniformity leads to vulnerability – and this is particularly true of natural systems. Monocultures in agriculture that encourage pest infestations are one example of this. That is why “cradle to cradle” requires people to be creative and use biological and cultural diversity in a rational way. Every product should contribute to maintaining this diversity. This could mean using locally available materials and material flows. The use of regional plants in their place of origin can make a lot of sense. If they have to be transported halfway around the globe as a raw material first, then this is no longer the case.

Spiral economy

The circular economy concept is a pioneering one, but it has a weakness: it assumes that material flows are clear and traceable. In reality, however, this is rarely the case, as the economy is a dynamic and highly complex system. That is why a pure circular economy will remain a dream.

A more plausible alternative is the spiral economy concept, which is based much more firmly on real-world conditions. The basic idea is that materials or products from individual sectors can also be re-used in totally different circumstances. One example is used packaging, which can in various ways serve as a raw material for new pullovers and jackets.

In the spiral economy, used products are not part of an isolated cycle, but form a platform that generates an endless number of possible uses. As that would make it much easier to maintain balance in the system, there are many reasons to favour the spiral economy as an idea with good chances of prevailing in future.

About Sesotec

As a partner to the plastics industry, Sesotec provides a variety of solutions designed to meet the needs of recyclers, plastics manufacturers and plastics processors. Sesotec helps ensure product purity through sensor-based material analysis systems, sorting systems, metal separators and services. The result? Guaranteed efficiency and profitability for the preparation, production and processing of plastics.

eBook: Driving Impact - Closing the plastic cycle

Closing the plastic cycle is the cleanest solution for humans and the environment. That is something politics have come to realise. Still, the industry also needs to lead by example. In our eBook we show you, amongst others, which challenges plastic recyclers, manufacturers and processors are faced with in the context of the circular economy.

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