Circular Economy

We had the pleasure to listen to a great lecture by Dr. Dominik Wiedenhofer about the circular economy. He is currently working at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) at the institute for social ecology. The key question of this lecture was if the circular economy is an ecological sustainability strategy.

To investigate that question, one has to make clear at first what circular economy means. The circular economy is the contrary to a linear structure, where products are once used and then discarded. The goal indeed is to keep materials and products as long as possible in a cycle and reuse them again and again. The concept of the circular economy connected existing ideas like the Factor 4 or the 3 R model. The 3 R model is widely known and has a high significance, as it represents an important hierarchy. On top of the inverse pyramid stands reduce, followed by reuse and concludes with the term recycle. Why it is essential to keep this hierarchy in mind is explained in the following.

The second key point was the social metabolism. This concept points out that humans are dependent on materials and energy. It focuses on the flow of these between society and nature but also between different societies. Humans try to build up, maintain and operate their material stock. Making a link from the social metabolism to the biophysical structure reveals a core leverage point.

The third part of the lecture was an empirical insight into the global, European and Austrian resource use and its circularity. Important here is the concept of the input cycling rate, which is given by:

After a long period of research on the circular economy, calculated by the formula above, the following results are revealed. In year 1900 the input recycling rate was 43%, but in 2015 this figure decreased to 27%. Whereas the 20th and 21st century were full of technical improvements, in terms of recycling, we do not really make steps forward. China and Japan took many measures to recycle in the year 2000. Yet at the present time, China's recycling rate is still very low. This is not only the case in China but also in Europe. This level is definitely not enough to reach the goal of a sustainable society.

What we found particularly interesting is the new 10 R concept. It works exactly similar as the 3 R concept, but can be seen as a refinement, including 10 steps instead of 3. The 10 R ranking goes from refuse, rethink, reduce and so on to recycling, which is only at position 7. According to this concept, there are 6 preferable alternatives before one has to consider recycling. The Rs from 7-10 are so-called end-of-pipe technologies and strongly focus on the output side. The waste reduction or even avoidance is reflected from 1-6 as the amount of waste decreases in these sectors. Another learning from this session is that recycling rates are low, especially for rare earth and critical materials, the recycling rates are commonly below 1%. This can be for instance explained by the little amount of yttrium in a smartphone. As the quantities are so low, there is a lot of energy required for recycling, which would be too expensive. We also found it quite interesting that 25-35% of global greenhouse gas emissions are created as a result of material use. This indicates that countries, particularly with a high GDP, should strongly reduce material use. Even buying a “climate friendly” electric car forces a high production of steel. Therefore, we are now aware that recycling is not the optimal solution. It does not attack the problem of waste at the root. When the steel of an electric car is recycled, many problems occur. Even for steel and plastic the recycling rates cannot reach 100%, as many subspecies of plastic and metals are existent and vast quantities of energy are needed for recycling. The conclusion is that if we want to make our economy climate-friendly, we must reduce the materials entering on the input side. In simple terms: Replace your car by a fancy bike, use public transport and rethink, if it is really necessary to buy a new plastic bottle every day.

We liked the thought that occurred in the discussion that certain advertisements should be forbidden to start this reduction. This is of course far from the state of the art, but nevertheless every individual can make a difference by changing consumption habits in order to avoid waste. Concerning the implementation of strategies in general, we have to keep the following in mind. In order to establish a circular economy it is important to set SMART goals and absolute targets. The acronym SMART includes specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and terminable goals. One example: The absolute amount of waste in the private sector in Austria should be reduced by 50 000 tons every year till 2025. Unfortunately, in reality, relative recycling rates are often used instead of absolute values, although their relevance is not really significant. Even if the relative recycling rates are increasing, the absolute amount of waste can grow. When the efficiency rate for steel recycling increases 0.5% a year, but more cars are scraped, clearly the absolute quantity of waste has increased in total.

Our take-home message is that the mainstream narrative of growth can only be sustainably fulfilled with absolute decoupling. This means that the GDP increases while the absolute material use sinks. Breaking the paradigm of growth and developing degrowth strategies is another possible approach. Nevertheless, we should prioritize on our wellbeing instead and change our infrastructure to a low waste society so that a good life for all is possible. Phenomena like planned obsolescence will hopefully soon be part of history books only. It is absolutely necessary as well to make recycling more effective to create longer cycles. Last but not least we have to always keep in mind that production and consumption inevitably go hand in hand with a need for energy and materials!

We fully agree with Wiedenhofer and use this opportunity to thank him for his lecture!

Based on the lecture "Circular Economy" by Dominik Wiedenhofer during AEMS 2022.
Written by: Fabian Häusle and Jack Peng.

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