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Do we (repeatedly) come full circle?
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Do we (repeatedly) come full circle?

In a circular economy, materials and natural resources are reused as often as possible. This benefits the environment, and the economy.

7 minutes
16 September 2020

Far too many materials and natural resources have a lifespan that is too short. In a circular economy, they are used again as often as possible. That is not only good for the environment, but may also benefit the economy…

In a circular economy, one attempts to maintain the value of resources and of the materials that are produced with those resources for as long and as well as possible. We are still a long way from that situation, says Professor Karel Van Acker, who has been studying the possibilities of circular economics for years.

Van Acker is affiliated with the Department of Materials Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering and at the Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability at KU Leuven. “We evaluate technological systems, or even whole sectors, to ascertain how sustainable or circular they are, using measurement methods that we develop ourselves.” Van Acker also directs the Circular Economy Policy Research Centre, which specifically conducts studies for the Flemsih Government: “Over the past few years, we have focused on developing a monitor to measure how circular Flanders’ economy is. Indeed, The Department for Environment has set a target to reduce the use of materials by 30% by 2030 and even 75% by 2050. What that means precisely, what we must do today to achieve that goal, and where we are currently… these are the kinds of questions that we try to answer.

“The way in which we currently use and consume resources involves a great loss of value,” Van Acker says. “Natural resources and the materials that are made with them are still too quickly reduced to waste. In the circular economy, we seek to extract more value from the resources that we use.”

As a result, finite resources will not be depleted too quickly. In addition, the circular economy is considered to be one of the most important strategies to reduce the emission of CO2. “Approximately 50 percent of global CO2 emissions are related to the extraction and production of materials.”

But there is also an economic side to the story: over the past few decades, the economy has grown thanks to more efficient ways of dealing with labour and with energy. But our ways of dealing with materials have not become more efficient. There is still plenty of untapped potential in this area. If we can use resources and materials more effectively and efficiently, it would also be very interesting from an economic point of view. That is another reason that the European Commission and the Flemish Government are so interested in the circular economy.”

Circulaire economie fiets MG 2471s

Van Acker has himself calculated that a circular economy in Flanders could lead to economic growth of two percent of GDP and about 30,000 additional jobs: “Of course there are also losers in a circular economy, but they have already factored into these calculations.” It thus goes without saying that it is extremely important from an economic perspective to start thinking in a more circular way.

And what does this look like in practice? When it comes to the circular economy, most people think about more and better recycling, but that is only part of the story, Van Acker says. “To me, recycling is the tailpiece of the circular economy, what we do when we have exhausted all other strategies. In the circular economy, we attempt to run societal functions, such as mobility, housing and communications by using fewer resources. One way of doing this might be to use certain products more intensively, for example. We might think here of the sharing economy. Why would you buy a car if it will then stand parked in front of the door 90% of the time? A shared car can contribute to a more circular economy.” This is also evident from a study that Van Acker conducted: “But it only applies if car owners get rid of their cars and join car sharing programmes. This sounds obvious, but there are also people who use shared cars as an alternative for the bus, and that is much less effective from the perspective of the circular economy.”

Technological developments play an important role in the transition to a circular economy: how can we make production processes more efficient and ensure that they consume fewer resources? Are there conceivable alternatives for resources that perhaps have a great ecological footprint or are scarcer than others? These are all strategies to ensure that fewer resources and materials end up in a dump or an incinerator. “We often work together with researchers who focus on technological materials innovation, such as bio-based composite materials, for example. But we also do that for the steel industry, for example. We conduct sustainability evaluations of the processes that they are developing and of the products that they make, so that they can subsequently be optimized.”

You sometimes hear that we are evolving to an economy that is completely circular and in which waste will no longer exist, but Van Acker says this is just a slogan: “Over time, there is always a reduction in quality. For example, people think that metals are infinitely recyclable, but that is not true. During the recycling process, contamination always occurs. For example, recycled steel can still be used in construction, but it is not good enough to use in the bodywork of a car. And ultimately, all materials suffer from a certain degree of degradation.”

There is a lot of goodwill on all sides, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. For example, more than 95% of building materials – which comprise the largest volume, almost 50% of all materials – are recycled. But all too often, they are used in lower-quality applications, such as in the subbase foundation layers of roads. “If demolition processes were to be conducted more selectively, it would be possible to use building materials in higher-quality applications,” Van Acker says. As far as synthetic materials are concerned, a number of types are recycled very well, but the more technical synthetics, which are of the highest value, are not collected and recycled as effectively, especially because they are smaller fractions.

Van Acker says that there is even room for improvement when it comes to the recycling of electronics. For example, computers could be designed so that they are easier to disassemble.

Studies also show that many products have a shorter lifespan now than in the past. “This is due to the fact that companies aim to make their products as cheaply as possible, but also because they seek to boost sales. Such companies could embrace a different business model, however, whereby the point is not so much to sell a product but a service. Companies would then have a vested interest in their products lasting as long as possible.”

More than 95% of building materials are recycled. But all too often, they are used in lower-quality applications, such as in the subbase foundation layers of roads.
More than 95% of building materials are recycled. But all too often, they are used in lower-quality applications, such as in the subbase foundation layers of roads.

It is currently as expensive to repair some products or appliances as it is to be a new one. “This is because the external costs to society, such as environmental pollution and resource depletion are barely factored into the price. And then add in labour costs…” One solution might be that repair activities become more automated. “Maakbaar Leuven, a non-profit that I chair, organizes repair cafés and is building a digital library in which people can look up how to repair certain appliances. Because there are many things that you can do yourself…”

In some respects, this is a return to the way in which our grandparents dealt with their belongings. But there is a difference: the circular economy is supported by the digital revolution: think, for example, of engines in which sensors indicate when certain parts require maintenance or replacement. “The data management required is very important. Car sharers, for example, also need an app with which they can easily and quickly reserve a car. Without such an app, I wouldn’t be a car sharer either…”

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