- The Circular Economy And Energy Efficiency: Opportunities In Marseille
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- Invitation To Nordic Innovations In Circular Economy And Energy Efficiency
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The Circular Economy And Energy Efficiency: Opportunities In Marseille – We can only define a circular economy if we look at the end state we want to achieve. Founder and CEO Eva Gladek explains our ‘Seven Pillars of the Circular Economy’.
The circular economy is a term that has gained popularity among businesses and governments over the past few years. With the increase in its use, the number of ways in which the term is defined has increased. Although some consensus is emerging among the various players working in the field, there is still a lack of clarity as to what “circle” means in practice.
The Circular Economy And Energy Efficiency: Opportunities In Marseille
Many groups define the circular economy in terms of the types of activities and concepts associated with it: the use of new business models such as leasing, collaboration across supply chains, using waste as a resource, etc. t tell us what the circular economy really is, because they do not describe the end state: what will the world look like when it is “circular”?
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Without answering this fundamental question, we lack a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve, making it impossible to measure progress in any meaningful way. If we are designing a product, for example, and only have limited resources to invest in more expensive, certified renewable materials; or the upfront costs required to set up a product leasing scheme, which will give the most circular return? If we accept the activity-based definitions of a circular economy, which imply that using any of these practices makes something circular, then we don’t get much insight into the choice to make. And in fact, we know that simply choosing renewable materials – or adopting a leasing scheme – doesn’t always mean less environmental impact or better value delivery.
Over the years of consulting and development work we have done in the area of the circular economy, we have often grappled with the issue of trade-offs in circular design and circular decision-making, or whether we need to progress towards circular goals that quantification. For that reason, it was necessary for us to define the performance characteristics of a circular economy.
The circular economy field focuses heavily on managing materials and ensuring that resource cycles are closed, in the same way that occurs in natural ecosystems, where water and nutrients are continuously cycled. So, we started by realizing this principle: in a circular economy, all materials should be used in such a way that they can be cycled indefinitely, just as they theoretically can in nature.
However, this statement implies some additional complexities: we don’t just want these materials to be theoretically recoverable – it has to happen on a human-relevant time scale. For example, if we create waste that takes thousands of years to recover – which may be the case with nuclear waste – this does not exactly address our original goals or criteria.
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Apart from this time scale issue, there is an important recurring principle within the discussion of the circular economy, and that is about preserving value and complexity: we want to ensure that materials can be put on the cycle at the highest and highest value yes, as whole products of choice, so on. as components, and finally recycling back to raw materials (which can be very energy intensive). Even the cascade here is oversimplified, and may look different depending on the context. For example, with a very energy efficient product such as an old refrigerator, it may be systemically better in terms of energy impact to scrap it and replace it with a newer model than the entire product life cycle expansion. But the general principle of preserving complexity is clear.
When thinking about how materials should ideally be handled in a circular economy, all sorts of additional conclusions are made regarding material toxicity, scarcity of certain materials, persistence of certain materials in the environment, and many other parameters. On this basis, we have developed a series of circuit factors that provide guidelines for the optimal use of materials for various applications. These are metrics we use to define a material based on its properties such as recyclability, scarcity, toxicity, etc. Using these factors, we have developed shorthand recommendations on how certain materials should be used to meet the objectives of the circular economy.
As we ran this exercise, we immediately realized that once you start developing goals for how to best manage materials, you also have many adjacent issues. Materials are just one type of resource in our economy, where all flows are ultimately connected and influence each other. In a world of unlimited and free energy, it is very easy to design and develop systems that fully recover all materials through extremely expensive and energy-intensive recycling processes – and that is the how we currently recover metals from e-waste, for example.
However, as energy is also a constraint in our current system (even renewable energy is generated by devices made of scarce materials) and often has high levels of environmental impact (such as CO2 emissions), we must treated as a scarce resource that should ideally be conserved. Ultimately, in a circular economy, all energy should be provided from renewable or other sustainable forms – like geothermal, which is technically not renewable, but we consider it a sustainable resource.
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To achieve this, the efficiency of our energy use must also be increased significantly. Although we know that the total amount of energy available on the planet is not a limit because the sun produces more than enough for everything we need, scarce materials must be used to collect this energy in the form usable, which is its own limitation.
As we continue to explore the implications of wanting a fully closed circular material cycle as the cornerstone of the economy, we eventually come across many other connections throughout the economic system that need to be fixed in a way that is consistent with wider human ideals. In the end, the result of this exercise was a set of seven characteristics that describe the end state of the circular economy once it is actually achieved. These are idealized features that will never be achieved, but they provide a specific set of goals that we can aim for. Furthermore, each can be defined in quantitative detail, forming the basis of Circular Indicators, or KPIs, in many different contexts.
You may notice that there are three emerging properties around our Seven Pillars of the Circular Economy: equity, transparency and resilience. These are about how a circular solution connects to the world around it. If we are designing a sustainable circular model, we need to pay attention not only to how we are designing the individual elements, but how those elements are connected to each other. For example, you can develop a fully recycled mobile phone that meets the criteria of the seven pillars. But for it to be truly circular, we want to make sure that it:
An important note on the Seven Pillars of the Circular Economy is that not all of these outcomes should be given equal priority when making decisions. When we look at the state of the global system, there are a number of areas that are highly threatened and close to systemic tipping points. Although climate change is one of these areas, some have an even greater impact, such as biodiversity loss. According to the WWF, the number of vertebrate species monitored declined by an average of 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, and we are in danger of reaching irreversible tipping points in this area. For this reason, we recommend prioritizing certain types of impact (and corresponding indicators) over others, which we also recommend in indicator selection processes.
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Combining all of these emerging insights, we have come up with our own working definition of the circular economy:
The circular economy is a new economic model to address human needs and distribute resources fairly without affecting the functioning of the biosphere or crossing any planetary boundaries.
CEO Eva Gladek presenting the Rotterdam Circular proposal, a city strategy developed around the seven pillars of the circular economy.
Given these clear performance outcomes, the process of natural selection will, so to speak, support the evolution of the economic rules and incentive structures that actually achieve these ultimate outcomes. The technologies and business models that support not just one, but all of these seven goals will be the ones that rise to the top as the most successful. Therefore, we do not arbitrarily support “product-as-a-service” models because they have been associated with the circular economy; instead we are looking at where, and under what conditions, these models lead to better circular performance.
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For us at , these seven pillars of the circular economy are an essential tool. With it, we can ensure that we are approaching problems in a systematic way. Whenever we recommend a course of action as part of a circular strategy, we make sure to consider whether or not the solution we’ve proposed is for one.
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