Materials in the Circular Economy: a Primer
Source:Circular Materials Library
We all have heard about different ways to save the planet from the ongoing climate crisis: saving water, using clean energy, avoiding air pollution, etc. Yet, the most intrinsic factor that we have managed to overlook for a long time is something on which all the aforementioned strategies are based, aka materials.
Materials make up everything around us, the wood in our houses, the steel in our gadgets and even the cells in our bodies. This essential yet circumvented lifeline is now coming into focus as every environmental predicament boils down to the flawed and toxic materials used in our everyday life.
The global economy has long operated on a linear attitude of: ‘take-make-dispose’, where raw materials are extracted, transformed into products, and ultimately discarded. However, this model is proving unsustainable in the face of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and the accumulation of waste. In response, a new economic model has emerged: the circular economy. At its core, the circular economy aims to keep materials in use for as long as possible through strategies like reuse, recycling, and regeneration. This shift towards a circular economy has important implications for the materials we use and how we use them.
In this article, we will explore the role of materials in the circular economy, discussing the types of materials compatible with this model and the challenges and opportunities that arise in implementing it.
Materials in the linear economy
When we buy the next new thing in the market, we forget to look beyond to its future and past. The origin of most conventional products is rooted in the hazardous operations of mining raw materials from the Earth, which then undergo various industrial processes to get to the stage we want to buy them in. We use these items until they become unusable, undesirable, or are just no longer needed, as “improved and updated” products flood the market. They are then discarded as waste, and with their future sealed in the obscurity of landfills or incineration, they thus lead to leaching toxins that eventually stifle life.
This linear way of manufacturing relies on a steady supply of new raw materials and energy to sustain production and consumption. Materials are often designed in a way to lower costs and convenience in order to skyrocket profits at the expense of resource efficiency and environmental health. The products are already embedded with a short lifespan and are often not easily repairable or recyclable. This results in significant waste generation as materials are just used once and then quickly discarded.
Additionally, these linear industries guzzle on non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and minerals, which are finite and subject to price fluctuations and geopolitical tensions. This further lead to supply chain disruptions and economic instability.
Overall, the linear economy’s reliance on such destructive production and consumption patterns has not just caused difficult-to-repair environmental problems but social issues as well, including unsafe work conditions, unequal pay, hunger and abject poverty. In contrast, the circular economy aims to keep materials in use for as long as possible, reducing waste and environmental impact while promoting economic resilience and sustainability.
Circular economy – the idea
An economy based on circularity revolves around four main principles, or levers, as the Circularity Gap Report 2023 calls them:
1. Narrowing the loop: This principle focuses on reducing the number of materials used in any product or service, thus recognizing the maxim of ‘doing more with less’. It is often used in the current linear model but rarely considers the end-of-life scenario of these materials.
2. Slowing the loop: This key lever aims to reduce waste by keeping materials in use for as long as possible. The extended product life is enabled by reuse, repair and remanufacturing, thus creating a closed-loop system where waste is minimized, and resources are conserved. For example, car-sharing services, peer-to-peer rental platforms, and the product-as-a-service model can all help to slow the loop.
3. Regenerating the loop: This idea focuses on replenishing natural resources and systems. Waste is treated as a valuable resource, and materials are regenerated through practices like regenerative agriculture, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration. Toxic materials are swapped out with ingredients of natural biomass to keep the loop safe and organic.
4. Cycling the loop: Like an effective amalgamation of the principles of both narrowing and slowing the loop, cycling keeps materials at their highest value throughout a longer life span of reuse. Even though virgin materials may be required to increase the strength of secondary resources, they drastically reduce the need to extract new raw materials.
Challenges to material circularity
Change is undoubtedly a formidable task, and it becomes all the more challenging when we aim to persuade numerous players on the planet to shift from a terrifying means to a sustainable temperament. The stakes are high, and the building blocks of our modern lives – the materials that we use and dispose of – can either make or break us. From industries to governments to the average consumer, every player has a critical role to play in this transformative journey.
A few of the monumental challenges we are currently facing in this field are:
1. Economic incentives: As the cost of extracting raw materials often proves to be lower than actually repurposing or recycling the product, businesses tend to prioritize short-term profits over long-term sustainability.
2. Technological deficiencies: Transitioning to a circular economy requires new technologies and systems for designing, producing, and recovering materials. It becomes a challenge as many of the innovations are still in development, and the research may not be cost-effective or scalable. It also has to fit in our current production lines without rendering our machinery useless.
3. Infrastructure and logistics: A circular economy requires updated societal structures, like developing collection and sorting systems for recyclable materials, building facilities for processing and manufacturing recycled materials, and creating supply chains for reused and repurposed materials. It thus becomes a costly and complex process.
4. Consumer attitude: The shift to a sustainable model also necessitates a significant mindset shift in the customers. As previously said, change is hard, and many of us are resistant to changing our culture of disposability and moving to habits of sustainable choices.
Altogether, these challenges of implementing circular materials are significant; they are not insurmountable. Through collective action and a shared vision, we can seamlessly introduce circular materials into our lives.
Circular material: Success stories
The past few years have witnessed an exhilarating trend in the emergence of innovative materials that align with the principles of the circular economy. These materials are rewriting the traditional rulebook and paving the way for a more sustainable future. What’s even more fascinating is the sheer diversity of these materials, which can be broadly classified into two categories: the BioCycle and the TechCycle. The BioCycle represents the ingenuity of nature, with biodegradable and compostable materials that have a positive impact on the environment. On the other hand, the TechCycle showcases the brilliance of human ingenuity, with materials that are designed to be reused, recycled, and repurposed
These include materials of biological origin or that are made from natural biomass. These renewable resources can be easily broken down and returned to the ecosystem. Most of their end-of-life plans include the soil-enriching processes of biodegradability and composting.
In the BioCycle, there is a welcomed surge of natural textiles replacing synthetic or animal-based ones. These fibres may be made from plant parts like leaves, food waste, algae, other microorganisms, etc. The rising industries of vegan leather, biodegradable cutlery and natural interiors constitute a big part of the BioCycle.
Some examples of such companies are Caracara, Fabula, Hempwool, etc.
The materials in TechCycle are not biodegradable or biological in origin, but they have the power to hold a consistently high value in the economy by recycling or repurposing them in specialized facilities. They include metals like aluminium and other synthetic materials made from plastic, nylon, etc.
The prime potential of TechCycle lies in its ability to transform the most nuisance waste into valuable products, thus protecting biodiversity and avoiding virgin material extraction.
For example, companies like The Gravity Wave and Econyl are converting the most hazardous barrier to marine life, i.e. fishing nets, into furniture and textiles.
Materials like metals and glass have the natural potency to be infinitely recyclable under the right conditions.
Furthermore, there are many new plastics on the rise, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable, that may be the ultimate solution to the worldwide plastic waste crisis. As these do not originate from fossil fuels, they are safe for the environment and can supplement the circular economy.
In conclusion, the concept of materials in the circular economy has become increasingly relevant as we face global challenges in food security, built environment and manufacturing deficiencies. By applying the principles of circular economy to the way we extract and incorporate materials in our daily stuff, we can move away from a toxic consumption pattern and instead create a regenerative and sustainable system that prioritizes the reuse, recycling, and restoration of materials.
While the concept of circular materials poses several challenges, including issues related to technology, geopolitics and consumer mindset, it has also proven to be fruitful through several successful case studies. Closed-loop systems for textiles, innovative reusable packaging solutions, and regenerative agriculture practices are some of the pioneering initiatives that showcase the potential of circularity.
Experts in the field have an essential role to play by advocating for policies that incentivize holistic growth and creating innovative solutions for material reuse and restoration. As we move towards an unpredictable future, it is critical to continue exploring the potential of circular materials to create a regenerative and equitable economy. The road to a circular materials nexus is arduous, but with the collaboration of all stakeholders, the result will be a sustainable and prosperous future for humanity.More info