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  • Writer's pictureiQneiform

Circular Economy: The necessary transition for the only way forward




Nature has always worked in a cycle. A plant grows from a seed into a tree, after taking nutrients from the soil and the energy from the sun. Once it dies, the resources it consumes are returned to the ground. One species becomes the food of another, and in the end, they return to the soil as nutrients. That’s how the natural world has always worked.

The industrial revolution and further globalization changed everything for human beings, as technology allowed us to make anything and mass produce it for the world. With all the resources of this planet at our disposal, more and more products started being made, as our demands changed from what was required to what was desired. In the midst of this pursuit for the next commodity that would make our life more meaningful, we lost track of how our lives had been impacting the planet.

We purchase new things, and discard the old, creating waste and pollution. Only in Europe, an average citizen consumes 14 tonnes of raw material and produces over 5 tonnes of waste yearly.

But what if we could find ways to create an economy where products also follow the same cycle as nature? Products with an extended life cycle, are fully recyclable. This would not only reduce waste, and energy consumption for production, it would reduce our society's impact on the environment and make human life more sustainable.


THE TRANSITION FROM LINEAR TO A CIRCULAR ECONOMY

The way we have lived our lives till now has been based on the principle of take, make, consume, and dispose which is known as a linear economy. As the global population is expected to increase to over 6 billion people, the use of natural resources is more than likely to increase. According to estimates, by 2060 we would be more than doubling the tonnes of resources we use – to 190 billion – increasing emissions and reducing the raw material deposits required for future technologies. Production of commodities accounts for over half of the global emissions and more than 90% of the biodiversity loss, drastically impacting the lives of our future generations.

Taking inspiration from nature, the concept of circular economy is to shift towards an economic model based on recycling, refurbishing, sharing, repairing, and reusing. Everything turns around in a circle, using very few resources, and producing less waste.

A circular economy is the only way forwards as it promises to improve our environment by reducing the pressure on the environment and ensuring the future availability of raw materials. These materials will be the key to creating new technologies, innovations as well as jobs of the future.


RECYCLING, REMANUFACTURING, AND LONGER LASTING PRODUCTS

One of the main reasons that most products are designed to flow a linear model is because of the lack of incentives, due to either price competitiveness or the lack of government support towards circularity. Therefore most products break down easily and cannot be repaired or reused. Since they are designed for single use, a lot of parts are not recyclable leading to more waste.

The environmental impact of a new product being manufactured can be determined at the initial design phase. Durability, reusability, reparability, and possibilities to upgrade should be considered at this stage to improve the products. Design should also consider how to facilitate the recycling of parts after their life back into the manufacturing process. Another key aspect is to end the use of hazardous chemicals and make their production energy efficient. Asides from this, the carbon footprint during its entire lifecycle needs to be assessed.

Sectorial obstacles to achieving a circular economy need to be addressed immediately:

  • The building and construction sector is responsible for over 35% of the European Union's total waste. Asides from this the manufacturing of construction materials and the pollution from extracting them constitute anywhere from 5-12% of the total greenhouse gases. In this scenario, if a circular model is adopted, it could result in over 80% of emission reduction.

  • Electronics and the information and communications industry are other major causes of waste, as only 40% of it gets recycled in the EU. Most products are not reparable and software is not supported beyond a certain extent, losing value and providing scarce opportunities for its parts to be recovered for reuse.

  • The packaging industry is growing constantly with a major environmental impact. An estimated 179 kgs of record waste of packaging material was recorded per inhabitant in 2019, which is the highest ever.

  • With a push toward the electric car transition within the automotive sector, the focus must be placed on making their batteries recyclable. As the manufacturing process of each battery requires for extraction of natural raw materials, new technologies are immediately required to shift towards a more sustainable source or raw material in this sector.

  • Already a major environmental hazard, the use of plastics is only expected to double in the next two decades. Emphasis needs to be laid to redesign them so that majority of them can be reintroduced into a circular system.

  • The textile industry is even worse when we talk about circularity. It is estimated that not only does the manufacturing of each textile have a huge environmental impact, but only 1% of it is recycled globally. This is why the textile sector requires a new model where clothes or fabrics reenter the economy after use and never as waste.

  • Food and water are two other sectors that require a major change for them to be a part of the circular economy. Firstly, emphasis needs to be put on making food and its byproducts free from contaminants as well as reducing the carbon footprint of transportation. Asides from this, recycling and reusing organic waste and water needs to be done in a way where it helps support biodiversity and becomes an alternative sustainable resource if it can't be re-entered into the system.


HOW DOES THE EU PLAN TO ACHIEVE A CIRCULAR ECONOMY?

With the main focus of promoting sustainability across sectors of the economy, the European Commission presented an action plan in March 2020. The aim was to incorporate sustainability across all the stages including product design, reduction of waste, and empowering the customer.

A new resolution was passed in the EU parliament in February 2021 to achieve a circular economy by 2050. They added new measures including points such as carbon neutrality and toxic-free environmental sustainability. On March 2022, the first measures to boost sustainable products were released by the Commission. This proposal included boosting sustainable products, empowering the green transition, a new strategy on sustainable textiles, and reviewing construction product regulations.

Policies have been made to enable remanufacturing and high-quality recycling with the aim to reduce carbon footprint. Plans are also to restrict single-use products and put a ban on the destruction of unsold durable goods. Incentives are being planned to make products as a service and other sharing models are made. Rewarding products based on their level of sustainability is also already happening which is incentivizing the manufacturing of high-quality products.


FINLANDS TRANSITION TOWARD CIRCULARITY

In this race to become sustainable and achieve a circular economy, Finland aims to be a pioneer. As circularity already accounts for about 5% of its GDP, it is estimated by 2030, circularity will have annual growth potential of 2-3 billion euros.

This means that a circular economy is an important moment for Finland as it will not only strengthen the export-driven economy by will also help its dependence on natural resources.

In order to achieve this, Finland plans to develop incentives that include taxations that support avoiding the use of natural resources and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Plans are also to transform Finland into a leading country that has a digital circular economy and interlinks its material and data flow. This will be done by boosting the traceability of material flows and resource-efficient products that will be achieved through data-based decision-making.

The aim is to create a circular economy through legislation, economic instruments, and digitization. Plans are also to procure and design lo carbon circular solutions for the public sector infrastructure projects as well as education and skills.


CHALLENGES ON THE PATH TO CIRCULARITY

Accomplishing an economy that is circular in nature will be a monumental task, requiring societies to completely change the way they consume, work, and manufacture. This would mean a change at all different stages of our economy, both locally and internationally.

Policies would have to be designed to help with this transition as well. Support should focus on medium and small-scale industries, as the cost of green innovation will be a major barrier. This, along with the lack of financing tools in the market will create further hurdles. Skill gaps will need to be tackled and consumer behavior will also require a shift toward this new system.

Despite its challenges, the circular economic model is expected to produce over 700,000 jobs by 2030 within the EU.


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