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Circular Economy – A Sustainable Approach

Posted on February 16th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D

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Over my last few posts we’ve been looking at sustainable development. What it is, where to start and how industry can taken a more sustainable approach to development programs. Last time we looked at the CADMID cycle and how that can be a useful way of understanding the full product life-cycle. Today, we’re going to look at circular economy.

What Is Circular Economy?

The term “circular economy” comes primarily from the study of living systems. It describes a way of thinking that considers systems a a whole, rather than a series of components. So instead of seeing a product lifecycle spanning from it’s conception to the end of it’s life in a linear fashion, circular economy looks more at the system a particular product is a part of.

In a circular economy approach there is no such thing as waste. There are no by-products of production or disposal that can simply be ignored. Any of this material we might usually call “waste” is simply a part of the system.

As an example, on a recent visit to an aquarium with my children I noticed a picture on the wall in the cafeteria which demonstrated a part of their circular economy approach. The image showed that all of the food waste from the cafeteria and biological waste from the aquarium is sent to a local facility for composting (or an equivalent of composting). That process releases energy in the form of heat, which is used to provide hot water in the local area, and results in nutrient rich compost which is used to grow crops in a nearby farm. The crops from the farm are then harvested and used in the aquarium. And so the cycle repeats.

As in the CADMID cycle we looked at last time, this approach is looking at the full end-to-end life-cycle of a product or process. But the circular economy framework goes one step further in that it loops back around to the start. This incorporates a lot of the ideas of a cradle to cradle based approach.

Heather Leslie, the project leader of the CleanSea Project, describes circular economy as  “a regenerative toxic free way of producing and consuming goods”. Because any “waste” or by-products arising from production are considered as a part of the system, a circular economy approach tends to promote renewable energy and other “clean” technologies.

What Has This Got To Do With Sustainable Development?

There’s an obvious link to ecology which is often highlighted when talking about circular economy. But the circular economy approach goes deeper than that.

The circular economy framework moves us out of the mindset of seeing our development programs, products and processes as linear and discrete and into a mindset of considering systems and a whole.

If we go back to our definition of sustainability being the endurance of systems and processes, the starting point needs to be developing a greater understanding of the systems we’re looking at. Circular economy, although perhaps not as simple and manageable as a more traditional view of our systems and processes, certainly gets us closer to the reality of what we’re doing and the impact it truly has on the world around us.

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