A new economic model is emerging that re-evaluates our current approach to production and consumption.
It calls for a paradigm shift across society in which products, components and materials are viewed as regenerative and restorative. An increasingly popular topic, the notion of a circular economy is gaining traction not only among environmentalists and academics but also within governmental and business sectors.
The IEC is examining the requirements for the circular economy. Exploratory studies are underway in the Advisory Committee on environmental aspects (ACEA) as well as in IEC Technical Committee (TC) 111 which develops horizontal standards related to environmental issues. ACEA chair Solange Blaszkowski and with Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, who leads the new ACEA task force on the circular economy, provided an overview of this topic.
Defining a circular economy
According to Blaszkowski, the concept of a circular economy is a reconsideration of how resources are managed and how waste is perceived. It affects the entire lifecycle of a product, from initial design and the materials employed to the use of the product, its repair, reuse and the transformation of its parts into a new product. A circular economy is based on the effective functioning of existing (circular) mechanisms such as extending product lifetime, reuse, repair, refurbishment, remanufacture and recycling.
Koskinen gives the example of a mobile phone that is no longer needed. Instead of being discarded, it can be sold or given to a family member for their use. Should the phone break down, it can be repaired rather than replaced. Likewise, it can be upgraded to extend its functionality – for example by increasing its storage capacity. Eventually it can be resold or disassembled for the extraction of its parts, some of which will include secondary raw materials that can be recycled and used for other products.
However, the recycling of materials is viewed as a last option since only some of the materials are able to be recovered while others, especially those present in only small amounts, are lost. As Koskinen comments, “it is very easily misunderstood that a circular economy is about recycling. Giving another life to your mobile phone has more value than putting it in a recycling bin where only some materials can be recycled”.
Implications for manufacturers
For manufacturers, the circular economy impacts products from the moment of their initial design. As Blaszkowski says, “you can have a product with a long life but is not repairable for e.g. safety reasons, or a product that lasts less, but is easily repairable. Trade-offs must be made based on product application”.
Many hurdles exist with current business models. “Business models should be open to making products that are as robust as possible, easy to refurbish or remanufacture or use components that can be retrieved and reused in new or reused products”, says Blaszkowski.
Changing the consumer mindset
Consumers will need to change current behaviours such as the continuous acquisition of the latest product models. New habits will need to be adopted such as the repair or upgrade of existing products, the use of second-hand goods and the adoption of product lease models. New services will need to be developed such as shops that can repair or refurbish products.
Education will be essential. As Blaszkowski comments, “it is always a question of education and the effort made to educate manufacturers and consumers to get them to learn new ways of thinking”.
Read more about the circular economy in e-tech.