Three essential changes needed to accelerate the shift to a circular economy
This year the term circular economy has come into the spotlight and worldwide searches reached an all-time high in October, as the need to move to sustainable practices is growing more imperative. A circular economy is where resources are kept in use for as long as possible to extract the maximum value, then the materials are recovered and regenerated to be used again. The need to shift to a circular economy is clear – the global population is expected to swell to 8.6bn by 2030 and our finite resources cannot continue to be exploited. Alongside this there is growing pressure from consumers on manufacturers and industry to recycle and regenerate products as education grows around the current climate crisis. However, there are also commercial advantages for businesses making this transition, research also shows that a circular economy can net an economic gain of €1.8trn per year by 2030.
These drivers for the adoption of a circular economy have led Gartner to predict that circular economies will replace traditional linear economies (make, use, dispose) in 10 years. To prepare for this companies, especially those in the chemicals and materials industries, will need to make fundamental changes to the way they operate and consume materials, as non-reusable product lines will become obsolete which will threaten many businesses. They need to invest heavily in green R&D and the digital tools researchers need to make informed decisions about the materials they use.
Here are three important areas that underpin a circular economy and need to be addressed in order for industry to move to this model.
1. Reuse and keep products in use
In recent years there has been a focus on making products easily disassembled for recycling, a closed loop and only feasible for companies at scale. Whereas repair, reuse and remanufacture has been largely put on the backburner. Products and components should be restored, remanufactured, and put back into use wherever possible to prevent any materials going to landfill. However, companies must consider the market needs and what makes the most financial sense when selecting materials to reuse.
To keep products in use for much longer and remanufacture components companies need to rethink and redesign the way products are made. Companies also need to ensure they are re-checking safety and environmental regulations when re-using materials. Creativity, innovation and collaboration will be central to this, researchers will also need to access the wealth of research being published on the subject. It can currently be difficult to find the right information in the deluge of data available, therefore as an industry we need to invest in methods to accurately search for, access, retrieve and incorporate information into a researcher’s workflow.
2. Use alternative materials
Dynamic economic factors are generating challenges and risks for product lifecycles, putting increased pressure on decisions at chemicals and materials companies. Using the ‘right’ materials will be the crux of a successful circular economy and we need to move away from hard-to-handle materials which have high recovery costs. From PET to steel to a new crop of biopolymers, powdered metals, carbon-based compounds or the countless tons of organic materials that end up in landfills, each material has its own quirks and costs of recovery, which researchers need access to data on to make informed decisions on the risk-benefit pay off of each material they use. The industry should look towards the green chemistry movement to do this and, and follow the 12 principles to ensure sustainable development.
However, this is not purely a matter of trading one material for another, all benefits and costs of materials need to be considered. This is illustrated by the fact that it takes four times as much water to produce a paper bag compared to a plastic bag, so it is not always a viable or sustainable alternative. A great example of making use of products that would otherwise go to waste was from green chemistry pioneer John Warner who devised a way to repurpose fishing nets as he could extract the nylon cover of polypropene, lead, pigment and other additives (Adidas turned the new nylon into a futuristic pair of knitted running shoes). However, when recycled materials are introduced back into the production line researcher need to ensure they have considered all the risks, hazards or “unknowns” associated to make sure it is safe and commercially feasible to do so.
3. Develop biodegradable products
A third core element underpinning the circular economy is biodegradable materials, which must be developed with sustainability in mind. Designing biodegradable products means eliminating hazardous substances, an important green chemistry principle. Thanks to the recent surge of impact of plastics, the development and availability of bioplastics made from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable fats, oils, corn starch and straw, but not all are biodegradable.
Additionally, biodegradable products need to comply with industrial composability standards and be organically recycled. A key element of biodegradable products is the need to encourage separate collection of bio-waste and organic recycling for efficient waste management. Not all biodegradable materials can degrade in all environments. Depending on design, some materials may biodegrade more effectively in treatment plants while others may do better in soils. It is important to consider how these materials will be handled at end-of-life and whether they will end up in an environment that promotes their biodegradability.
Transforming tools and mindsets
The benefits to the planet from a circular economy can be substantial and it is essential to conserve the natural resources we have left. To make this shift quickly, more digitalisation and access to data concerning chemicals and materials selection across the value chain are needed; from product formulations to chemical toxicity to capital investments. Companies need to have the right tools to enable them to handle and understand the data available so they can make informed, rapid decisions on product design and development and support product lifecycle workflow objectives.
As other companies follow the pioneers in the transition from circular economy theory to practice, they are certain to encounter obstacles. This is to be expected as changing mindsets and cultures of time-tested approaches is difficult. But this transition is a must in addressing the challenge of the ever growing population and being commercially successful at the same time.
UK's emissions target: to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035.
The UK government announced two days prior to Earth Day, that it will set the world’s most ambitious climate change target into law, to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035.
This Carbon Budget limits the volume of greenhouse gases emitted over a 5-year period, from 2033 to 2037, taking the UK more than three-quarters of the way to reaching net-zero, by 2050.
It will ensure that Britain remains on track to end its contribution to climate change, whilst remaining consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goal to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts towards 1.5°C.
For the first time, this Carbon Budget will incorporate the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions.
On Earth Day (22 April), Prime Minister Boris Johnson will address the opening session of the US Leaders’ Summit on Climate, hosted by President Biden. The Prime Minister will urge countries to raise ambition on tackling climate change and join the UK in stretching targets for reducing emissions by 2030, to align with net-zero.
The government is already working towards its commitment to reduce emissions in 2030, by at least 68% compared to 1990 levels through the UK’s latest Nationally Determined Contribution - the highest reduction target made by a major economy to date. Today’s world-leading announcement builds on this goal to achieve a 78% reduction by 2035.
The new target will become enshrined in law by the end of June 2021, with legislation setting out the UK government’s commitments laid in Parliament tomorrow (Wednesday 21 April).
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said:
“We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world.
“The UK will be home to pioneering businesses, new technologies and green innovation as we make progress to net zero emissions, laying the foundations for decades of economic growth in a way that creates thousands of jobs.
“We want to see world leaders follow our lead and match our ambition in the run up to the crucial climate summit COP26, as we will only build back greener and protect our planet if we come together to take action.”
Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said:
“The UK is leading the world in tackling climate change and today’s announcement means our low carbon future is now in sight. The targets we’ve set ourselves in the sixth Carbon Budget will see us go further and faster than any other major economy to achieve a completely carbon neutral future.
“This latest target shows the world that the UK is serious about protecting the health of our planet, while also seizing the new economic opportunities it will bring and capitalising on green technologies – yet another step as we build back greener from the pandemic we lead the world towards a cleaner, more prosperous future for this generation and those to come.”
The UK over-achieved against its first and second Carbon Budgets and is on track to outperform the third Carbon Budget which ends in 2022.
This is due to significant cuts in greenhouse gases across the economy and industry, with the UK bringing emissions down 44% overall between 1990 and 2019, and two-thirds in the power sector.
Moreover, the UK continues to break records in renewable electricity generation, which has more than quadrupled since 2010 while low carbon electricity overall now gives us over 50% of our total generation.