Making Products Circular: Insights into more Sustainable Manufacturing

Date: November 23, 2018

Making Products Circular: Insights into more Sustainable Manufacturing

The way we currently produce and consume products is unsustainable. We use vast quantities of virgin resources, often with considerable detrimental impacts on the environment. Strip mining can result in the destruction of entire mountains to get at mineral resources, while deforestation due to our demand for timber or to clear space for farmland or plantations can destroy ecosystems and bring species to extinction. We also produce enormous quantities of waste that needs to be disposed of, but our landfills can only handle so much it.

In many cases, we fail to dispose of waste in a managed way, with litter ending up polluting even the most remote reaches of our planet. If you take the example of plastic waste—a hot topic at the moment—we have seen distressing images with turtles and other sea creatures dying after mistakenly consuming plastic bags. Plastic waste has been found in all our seas, at both poles and even at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest natural spot on Earth.

A transition to a circular economy provides a way to reduce the impacts of resource extraction and waste disposal. To see how this would work, let’s first examine how our current linear consumption functions. Throughout most of our history, and now, in our current economic system, we rely on a linear approach to making and consuming products, the so-called “take-make-use-dispose” approach. We produce products from virgin materials and discard them after they are no longer useful (known as the end-of-life phase of a product’s existence). This requires ever increasing quantities of virgin materials to satisfy growing demands and results in the generation of ever greater amounts of waste.
However, there is an alternative. If, once we extract virgin materials, we do everything we can to retain them within our economy through recycling, reuse, refurbishment and repair, and if we design products that last longer or do more, we should be able to drastically reduce the amount of virgin materials needed and also the amount of waste generated at the end of life. Such a circular economy will help decouple economic growth from the consumption of limited resources.

To successfully transition to a circular economy, we must redesign the products we make. We need to increase recycled and reused inputs, use standard or modular components to allow for repair and refurbishment, design for disassembly and make products that have a greater lifespan and that can do more within their lifetimes.

To support this process, we need to measure circularity, which allows companies to benchmark their current products and measure their progress in developing more circular alternatives. In 2015, with EU funding, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Granta Design developed a “Material Circularity Indicator” (MCI) that does just this. The MCI of a product measures the extent to which a manufacturer minimizes linear flows and maximizes restorative flows in a product’s component materials, and how long and intensively consumers use the product compared to similar industry-average products.

Up until now, companies have only used the methodology in a limited way because the input data for the calculation is fairly demanding and the calculations are quite detailed. So manufacturers find it difficult to implement. thinkstep’s new GaBi Circularity Tool solves both of these problems. We realized that the information needed to calculate the MCI of a product is very similar to that needed to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA). When an MCI requires additional data (e.g., data on recycled content and on the efficiency of recycling processes), it can usually obtain such information from our GaBi databases. GaBi is a powerful LCA software tool that can also easily handle the calculations for generating an MCI result. With a few simple modifications to a standard LCA model, GaBi can report the MCI alongside conventional LCA metrics, each complementing each other.

Higher ‘circularity’ as a stand-alone indicator does not guarantee a product has a better environmental performance than a product with a lower MCI, although this may often be the case. Only in combination with LCA results can you really interpret the results effectively—you can see the trade-offs and use them to make meaningful decisions to improve environmental performance.

There may also be different routes to achieving increased circularity through reuse, recycling and improving product utility. In these cases, you can use LCA to identify the environmentally preferred option.
The MCI is a vehicle for assessing circularity that is intimately linked to resource efficiency, something that LCA does not deal with very well. There are LCA indicators that address resource depletion, but they are not very robust. So having another way of looking at this topic is useful. Also, LCA methodology for examining recycling can only account for the benefits of recycled content and end-of-life recycling at the same time in a limited way, whereas the MCI is highly capable of calculating the benefits of both simultaneously.

With the GaBi Circularity Tool, GaBi does the hard work and makes reporting the MCI simple and streamlined when you do it alongside an LCA. GaBi datasets can often provide you with supporting information to help you find data on recycling efficiencies and recycled content, further assisting you to apply the methodology in a practical way. There is no need to start from scratch—it is possible to retrofit the MCI toolkit to existing LCA models, saving you a lot of time. The MCI and LCA results complement each other, making the Material Circularity Indicator a useful additional metric to include in LCA studies.

>> More information on Circular Economy

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