The circular economy: a boost for growth

Home Technologist 10 The circular economy: a boost for growth

How Europe is shifting towards a more sustainable system by reusing, remanufacturing and recycling.


Adopting circular economy principles could bring some serious economic benefits: it could boost the EU’s economy by €0.9 trillion by 2030, according to management consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company and circular evangelist charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The European Commission agrees. It has calculated that a shift towards a more circular economy could save EU businesses €600 billion annually, boost the region’s international competitiveness, create jobs and also trim the bloc’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions by 2 to 4 per cent.

The European Commission kick-started the transition with a circular economy package in December last year. It included measures like an EU-wide 65 per cent municipal waste recycling target by 2030, incentives for circular product design, the removal of legislative market barriers and funding for innovative technology.

“The circular economy agenda responds to one of our main future challenges — to do more with less — and represents a valuable opportunity to boost competitiveness, create jobs and generate sustainable growth,” says European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen.

Some innovators are already incorporating principles of a circular economy in their businesses. Whether or not they know it, anyone who has worn a Patagonia jacket, watched Caterpillar machinery at work, stepped on Tarkett flooring or used a Xerox photocopier has already been a part of a closed or almost closed technical loop, in which products or components are reused and remanufactured after extended use, then recycled as a last resort.

Prospecting for gold in urban wastecircular-economy-box-1

The non-biodegradable products Europeans use and discard on a daily basis make up 70 per cent of their municipal waste. These could be a valuable source of raw materials when viewed as an “urban mine”. In the potentially lucrative field of e-waste, for example, the combined billions of cellphones used around the world make up an extensive urban mine at our fingertips. “This is far richer in mineral concentration levels than any ore for elements like gold,” explains Jaco Huisman, a scientific advisor to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.

Other materials found in e-waste are likely to be diluted, unlike high-concentration elements such as gold. Reclaiming them can be technically difficult and economically unpractical. This is a challenge for urban mining, which also includes the design of future products for optimal raw material reclamation.

It is something Huisman hopes to help change as a scientific coordinator for ProSUM, a 17 partner, EU/Swiss-funded project to prospect and map out Europe’s urban mine.

The project tracks Europe’s e-waste, batteries, disposed vehicles and mining waste to create a database similar to the one on primary resources. It aims to create an overview of Europe’s secondary raw materials, especially high-demand critical raw materials like Neodymium, which is vital for electric vehicles and renewable energy techno­logy. “In e-waste, there are more than 58 different metals,” says Huisman. “If you want a circular economy, you need to know where they are precisely.”

The tech that empowers

Today’s rapid technological changes can serve as catalysts for a circular economy. The Internet of Things and big data, for example, are increasingly used to maximise products’ efficiency and performance. Platforms like Airbnb or BlaBlaCar make asset sharing easier. Virtual products and services like e-books and Skype are replacing their physical counterparts, and new tech enables more environmentally- friendly manufacturing.

Last year, the Eindhoven University of Technology unveiled the world’s first ever modular car, an electric vehicle made from a novel bio-fibre composite. The Nova, designed to be a car for life, adjusts to its owner’s needs at different times. A click can change seat configurations or even the shape and colour of the car.

Perhaps more importantly, the new bio-fibre composite is strong, light, and more sustainable than traditional glass fibre-reinforced versions and can be recycled at the end of use. The resulting vehicle weighs less than 300 kg, which translates into an energy consumption equivalent to 800 km of driving on a litre of fuel with a combustion engine. At the Delft University of Technology, Future Energy Systems professor Ad van Wijk (@advanwijk) is optimistic a 3D-printed, bioplastic house can be produced within five years. Van Wijk says renewable feedstocks like sugar beets can already be turned into bioplastics, used in a 3D-printed product and later re-melted for further 3D printing. “So we want to look into these energy and materials aspects: can we actually print it as a normal product?”, he adds.circular-economy-quotation

3D printing a house still faces many challenges. However, the new manufacturing process also shows great promise, including logistical savings through the on-site printing of materials, reduced or eliminated waste, a shift away from using carbon-intensive products like concrete and the chance to close material loops by reprinting. “It is not only about certain materials, but about this additive manufacturing technology that can be used to reuse all existing materials, to bring them into a circular loop,” he says.

Van Wijk is convinced 3D printing technology has the potential to not just improve manufacturing in the future, but to redefine it completely. And although the technologies still require development, increasingly more circular adopters like him are building the case for changing outdated, linear ways of thinking and manufacturing.

Breaking down the waste problem circular-economy-box-2

Last year saw the launch of project Powerstep, a European sewage treatment research and industry initiative carrying out a full-scale demonstration of wastewater treatment plants that also double as power production facilities.

Powerstep claims that wastewater treatment in Europe uses the same amount of energy as two large power stations. By contrast, the organic matter in the municipal wastewater contains as much potential chemical energy as the output of 12 large power stations.

The initiative’s pilot-tested concepts promise to be power-positive and carbon-neutral. They harness the latent energy in sewage biomass with improved sludge digestion, producing biogas and even potentially a nitrogen fertiliser. The project runs until June 2018. Six plants in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark are using the technology. Boris Lesjean, Innovation Manager with industry partner Veolia Germany says reviewing the project’s economic viability is an important step. “The wastewater treatment plants can play a significant role in decentralised energy systems and will support the energy and climate strategies of municipalities and regions,” he says.

With proof, the project leaders then hope the high-quality, energy-positive wastewater treatment will quickly spread through established industry partners and beyond.

Selling services instead of goods

Going beyond basic circular economy principles, Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design takes its inspiration from nature. Its goal is to create wasteless material loops that are not only sustainable and safe for people and the earth, but also actively contri­bute to environmental regeneration.

“Efficiency is deadly when you make the wrong things perfect: If you make the wrong things perfect, then they are perfectly wrong,” explains Michael Braungart, Academic Chair “Cradle to Cradle for Innovation and Quality” at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “It’s about effectiveness.” Braungart views manufactured goods as services, not products. According to his vision, products should be optimized at a component level for long use by using the highest-quality materials, then rented out and later either reused, remanufactured or recycled.

“We will bring a washing machine to market next February, where we’ll sell 3,000 washing cycles instead of the washing machine. Nobody needs the washing machine; they need clean clothes. After eight years, they return the washing machine. Twenty percent of the components are replaced because they’re outdated, and 80 per cent of the components are used again.”

Similar design elements show up in his building collaborations with Werner Lang of the Technical University of Munich’s Institute of Energy Efficient and Sustainable Design and Building. “The most important thing is that there are reversible material connections,” contends Braungart, referring to the ability to easily disassemble different elements in buildings. “We basically make a building like a Lego house so it’s modular and you can reuse the components.” A recent project designed by Lang’s students, the NexusHaus, is a good example.

The modular house, built almost entirely with sustainable, non-toxic materials, generates more energy than it consumes, has a fish and vegetable aquaponics system and provides for most of its inhabitants’ water needs. The design earned fourth place in the Solar Decathlon challenge in California last year. Now a living space and research unit at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, it is hoped to serve as a prototype for future mass-production of modular homes in Austin, Texas.

Report by Joe Dogshun @JDJourno