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Designing a Circular Economy. Is recycling the solution?

Updated: Jan 4



Carola Caffarena. Chemical engineer specialized in environment and wastewater treatment. Passionate about traveling, reading, jazz, and aiming for sustainability as an all-rounder.


The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers. In a business-as-usual scenario, the natural resources will be endangered due to the growing consumer demand (1).

全球总人口预计到2030年将达到90亿,其中包括新增的30亿中产阶级消费者。通常情况下,由于消费者需求的增长,自然资源岌岌可危。


July 12, 2017, beach in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong Province. Source: Chinatopix via AP, File 2017年7月12日的青岛某沙滩

The Fourth Industrial Revolution landed with innovative business concepts based on providing services instead of products, switching from consumers to users, impacting both production and consumption in an unprecedented digital and borderless era. In parallel to it, the conventional linear production model has provoked a growing unbalanced situation with the scarcity of natural resources and excess of wastes. This has led to rethinking production schemas towards a circular model that guarantees health and environmentally safe products with a longer lifecycle that are integrated back in the dynamic loop after its use, zero wastes production, minimized yet more efficient use of environmentally friendly resources, elimination of ecological footprint and environmental benefits, while at the same time maintaining economical profitability and balance between user and producer.

我们现在正在经历第四次工业革命。它的的起步基于当下创新性的商业理念:从提供产品转变为提供服务,从消费者转变为用户。在这个前所未有的数字化、无边界的时代,第四次工业革命深刻影响着生产和消费。与此同时,传统的线性模式(取得、制造、丢弃)必将导致一个资源匮乏又过度浪费的愈加不平衡的状态。重新思考下生产模式,循环经济的重要性清晰可见;后者力求保证的是健康无污染的产品(生命周期长且周期结束后又回到动态循环中)、零废弃的制造、最高效地使用(环境友好型)资源、抵消生态足迹、环境效益,同时保持经济收益、协调用户和生产者关系。


What is a circular economy?

循环经济是什么

The circular economy is a regenerative approach to shift to a new business concept and transform the up-to-date production and consumption habits, a model based on zero waste policy and keeping all resources at their highest value flowing continuously between producers and users. A system with a positive environmental impact, huge innovation possibilities, and high economic activity (2) estimated in a trillion-dollar (1).

循环经济是一种基于零浪费政策、使资源发挥最高价值的经济模型,核心是减少浪费和资源的持续利用(回收再利用)。它有利于环境且创新空间巨大,预估市值达一万亿美元。


“A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles (3):

据麦克阿瑟基金会描述,循环经济建立于以下三个原则:

  • Design out waste and pollution: promote eco-effectiveness of systems and processes (4) and utilize new materials and technologies to ensure wastes and pollution are not by-produced and to facilitate the conversion of wastes into resources; Design out waste and pollution: 促进经济过程的生态效益,利用新材料、新技术以保证不产生废物与污染,促使废物转化为资源

  • Keep products and materials in use: optimize resources performance promoting the circular flow of products and materials in order to keep them in their highest value while being repaired, reused, and remanufactured; Keep products and materials in use: 优化资源的效益,促进产品和材料的循环流动,在维修、再制造的过程中发挥其最大价值

  • Regenerate natural systems: enhance the natural resources by controlling and preserving the finite sources and balancing the renewables ones, adopting more efficient technologies (5, 6). Regenerate natural systems: 控制资源的开采、促进可再生能源的发展、使用更有效的技术以保护自然资源

In China, this concept is regulated by the Circular Economy Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China from 2008 amended in 2018. China was one of the first countries in the world to legislate the circular economy. Since 2002 the Asian country is promoting and including it in its agenda.

在中国,这一概念受到《中华人民共和国循环经济促进法》(制订于2008年并于2018年修订)的监管。中国是世界上最早为循环经济立法的国家之一。自2002年以来,亚洲国家就一直在努力将其纳入其议程。


The benefits of a new system

循环经济的益处


Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Compared with China’s current linear model, a circular design could save businesses and households approximately CNY 32 trillion in 2030 and CNY 70 trillion in 2040 in spending on high-quality products and services. These savings, equivalent to around 14% and 16% of China’s projected GDP in 2030 and 2040 respectively, could raise Chinese lifestyle standards. Applying a circular economy also reduces the environmental impacts of this lifestyle (7).

与中国现在的线性模型相比,循环经济设计可以为商业和家庭在高质量产品和服务商节省一大笔开支:到2030年时32万亿元,到2040年时70万亿元。节省的部分分别相当于中国在2030年和2040年国内生产总值的14%和16%,可以极大地提高中国人的生活水平,同时还减少了对环境的影响。


In a digitalized world the economic benefits of employing a circular economic model in the electronics and electrical sector could reduce the costs for consumers by 7% by 2030 and 14% by 2040 (8).

此外,在数字化的当下,将电子电气邻域推广循环经济概念,2030年时可以为消费者节省7%;2040年时8%。



Adding value to the supply chain and creating jobs

为供应链增值并创造就业机会


The current worldwide scarcity of resources and an excessive amount of waste demands a system that adds value to the supply chain, keeps materials flowing, in contrast with the linear economy. A circular economy places recycling as the last alternative and prioritizes activities based on reduction, reparation and maintenance, reuse, and refurbishment or remanufacture, which also represents an opportunity for promoting social relationships between service providers and users and opens the door to new specialized jobs, while recycling focuses more on low qualified jobs. Walter R. Stahel, the godfather of the modern circular economy, introduced the metric of labor input-per-weight ratio (man-hour-per-kg, or mg/kg) to measure job creation in relation to resource consumption. He found that the ratio of mg/kg when building a remanufactured engine from used resources compared to making the same engine from virgin materials is 270:1. The impact on employment is huge (9).

当下的世界,资源匮乏的同时垃圾过量。这要求一个能够促进物料使用、为供应链增值的系统。循环经济将回收置于最末项。优先级从高到低依次是:减量,维修和保养,重用,翻新,最后是回收。这些过程也提供了机会来建立起服务人员和用户之间的社会关系,也提供了新的工作机会(相比之下回收只是专注于低端的分拣工作)Walter R. Stahel是现代循环经济的教父。他引入了一种劳动投入与产出重量比的度量方法(人·工时/每千克,或者mh/kg)来衡量资源再利用方面的新增工作机会。他发现,在制造一个发动机的时候,使用回收材料和使用原始材料制造,其mh/kg的比值是270:1。这对于就业的影响是巨大的。


Source: Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation

A circular design proposed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (10) distinguishes between consumables and long-term elements. In this context, consumables are made of natural and renewable sources, are healthy, safe and through several cycles of use can go back to nature without harming it. The long-term elements originate from finite sources and need to extend their lifecycle through a cascade of preferred actions in order starting for reducing its use, maintaining it flowing by sharing and repairing, reusing it, further refurbishing or remanufacturing it and, as the final stage or option, recycling it to the initial state (11, 12). An example of long-term elements are those used in electronics which in the last phase end up as recyclable e-wastes that need to be recycled as their sources are limited, are very expensive to extract and its landfill disposal would expose them to risks. Even in some cases, recycled materials are not of sufficient quality for use in new electronic products. In China, there is a target for 20% recycled content in all new products by 2025. Another aspect of this design is that the energy used to power on must be of a natural and renewable source in accordance with the principles of a circular economy.

麦克阿瑟基金会提出的圆形设计区分了消耗品和长期用品。其中消耗品需要由自然的、可再生的材料制作,并且安全健康,经过几轮循环使用后可以回到自然中而不伤害她。长期用品是使用有限的资源制作的,需要设法延长其生命周期例如分享和维修,最后回收再制成原材料。长期用品的一个例子是电子器件。这些电子元器件的有些制作材料非常稀有而且昂贵,而且将它们填埋会有很大的环境风险。它们需要被回收利用,即便有时候回收材料的质量不能满足制造需求。中国设立了一个目标:到2025年让材料回收率达到20%。此外,根据循环经济的原则,循环经济设计中使用的能源必须满足自然可再生的条件。



Recycling, is it all positive?

回收总是积极的吗?

The circular economy aims to transform the conventional linear economy of take-make-dispose into a flowing positive loop redefining growth and waste (Weforum) and building economic, natural, and social capital (3).

循环经济旨在将传统的“开发-制造-废弃”线性经济模式转化为环形的资源流动。它重新定义了增长与垃圾,且积累了经济、自然和社会资本。




Source: Government of The Netherlands

During the end of the last century, recycling was seen as a solution to the growing environmental concerns and a way to get raw materials at a lower cost by reintroducing wastes in the process chain. However, the process of recycling waste is a less straightforward variant of a linear business model and involves additional economic and environmental disadvantages: recycling might not be inexpensive yet requires high investment costs and still results in revenue loss; from a technical point of view, it demands high water and energy consumption and generates additional pollution and wastes while products obtained from recycled material are usually of lower quality and have a short life cycle. Recycling is not an eco-effective process; moreover is not enough to meet current demands (13).

在上世纪末,回收一度被视为环境问题的一个出路,还可以为供应链提供低价的原料。然而,回收只是线性经济模型一个不直观的变体,也会导致一些经济和环境问题。回收看似很廉价,但需要巨额的投入,或许不实现盈利。从技术角度讲,回收的过程消耗了大量的淡水与能量,还会产生额外的污染与废料。而且回收材料制作的产品往往质量不高、生命周期短。回收并不是一个对环境有益的过程,也不能满足当前的需求。


Creating new products in origin is very often cheaper and easier than making it out of waste. Moreover, many products are not recycled as the process itself is very complicated and energy-and-resources-intensive. In the conventional linear economy, waste collection and landfill disposal costs are minimized so that it is frequently a more attractive option in contrast with recycling. This is the case with many plastic wastes.


“Recycling is business-as-usual” (A. Lemille)

In the context of a circular economy that avoids waste generation and landfill disposal, it seems that recycling is not an eco-effective strategy. The recycling phase in a standard economy does not overcome the current problems yet displaces it to another stage of the whole process, even adding further disadvantages.

Circularity is key in the design and evolution of new business and systems as a “cradle to cradle®” approach to mirror the natural cycles and preserve and regenerate the natural capital. There is a need to rethink waste, transform our consumption schemas and circulate value. It is time to Reduce, Reuse, and be Responsible.

Through the Zero Waste Shanghai Consulting Services, we can help you improve your business transforming it into a circular model.

https://www.zerowasteshanghai.com/services


Bibliography

  1. World Economic Forum

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/11/build-circular-economy-stop-recycling/

2. https://new.ingwb.com/en/insights/circular-economy

3.Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Economy, Concept

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept

4.Ellen MacArthur Foundation, News, Efficiency vs Effectiveness. October 9, 2012

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/news/efficiency-vs-effectiveness

5.Estrategia Gallega de Economía Circular 2019-2030. Xunta de Galicia

6.Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Economy, What is a circular economy?

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy

7.Morlet, A. et al. “The Circular Economy Opportunity for Urban and Industrial Innovation in China”, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2018.

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/The-circular-economy-opportunity-for-urban-industrial-innovation-in-China_19-9-18_1.pdf

8.World Economic Forum. "A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot."

http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_A_New_Circular_Vision_for_Electronics.pdf

9.A. Lemille. “For a true circular economy, we must redefine waste”. MakingIt, Number 26. Time to go circular. United Nations Industrial Development Organization UNIDO. October 2019.

https://www.unido.org/sites/default/files/files/2019-10/makingit_26_web.pdf

10.Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Economy, Concept, Infographic

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept/infographic

11.World Economic Forum. "From linear to circular—Accelerating a proven concept”.

https://reports.weforum.org/toward-the-circular-economy-accelerating-the-scale-up-across-global-supply-chains/from-linear-to-circular-accelerating-a-proven-concept/

12.McDonough, W., Braungart, M., Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, New York: North Point Press, 2002

13.https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-recycling.php


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