About Circular Economy
Circular economy is the latest buzzword for environmental enthusiasts, and not just because it’s good for the planet. Circular London estimates that a circular economy for the city could realize up to £7bn annually, as well as 40,000 new jobs and a 60% reduction in waste (according to Evening Standard).
When it comes to taking measures to improve the environment and lower our footprint, terms like “green” and “sustainability” mean different things to different people. In the early 1990s, the term “life cycle assessment” (LCA) was making the rounds and had different definitions depending on who you asked. A global effort to harmonize those definitions took place in the early 1990s under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). After seven years and with the input from numerous countries and experts, there are now ISO standards for life cycle assessment which are widely used to help us take a holistic look at processes and products from a “cradle-to-grave” mentality. This methodology enables organizations to identify opportunities throughout a product’s life cycle to reduce energy consumption, raw material use, and emissions.
Now enter the term “circular economy.” The concept is simple and draws from all the terms described above: green, sustainability, and life cycle assessment. Yet it points to a larger issue, in that instead of thinking linearly across the boundaries of products and services, we are now seeking to come full circle (i.e., there is no “grave”).
Circular economy is as much a mindset as it is a methodology. By thinking (and designing) in terms of reuse, recycling, and repurposing of products before the traditional disposal of them at the end of their useful life, we are putting an emphasis on product and material consumption redesign up front – much different than business as usual.
Practical Applications of Circularity
At a major event called “Circularity 19” held in June 2019, an important dialogue took place about the meaning of circularity, and entrepreneurs shared examples of new approaches to achieve it. One such example that was presented pertained to post-consumer use of single use disposables, primarily plastics. It involves piloting a software platform in Asia for reusable plastic coffee cups, food containers, and single use bottles around the concept of reuse. Recognizing that improvements in bioplastics and recycling are end of life approaches that may take years to develop, this software platform provides an accountable system of the borrowing, use, and return of reusable containers in a way that meets the need of the consumer (i.e., wanting a reusable container but not wanting to lug it around), and the foodservice establishment who wants to reuse containers, but not put in a sanitation system in every locale. The system being piloted involves making reusable containers with an RFID integrated chip, establishing a series of convenient stations for consumers to drop off their reusable cup after use, and an incentive to the establishment by having a company collect the used containers at the station, sanitize them, and restock them at member establishments. The economics appear to be feasible in the pilot programs, and this could be an upstream solution for reuse that might apply to reduce single use disposables. These are the types of innovations that apply circularity and promote a new way of thinking about reuse, and perhaps a viable business model for implementation.
The Case for a Global Circular Economy Standard
Many industries across all sectors and throughout the value chain are open to this concept of circularity. They recognize progress should not only include responsible use of natural resources, but also facilitate and implement reuse, repurposing, recycling, and recovery of the value that is inherent in materials traditionally viewed as waste. However, the path to implementing this mindset practically in their day to day operations may not be so clear, and what’s considered “circular” to one organization may not be good enough for another (or for that organization’s stakeholders). How should companies proceed in identifying areas for improvement and prioritizing research and development to further circular economy goals, and how much is enough?
These are questions that remain unanswered for now, but an agreed-upon global definition and standard will help bring light to best practices and reasonable, impactful goals. With all the buzz surrounding circular economy around the world, the opportunity to shape a global definition is now. ISO – the organization which, through its rigorous review process, has developed internationally-recognized standards for life cycle assessment, environmental management systems, environmental labeling, and greenhouse gas management (to name a few) – is now tackling circular economy. And this is excellent news.
Next Steps and How to Get Involved
The designated technical committee held their first meeting in May of 2019 to begin the process of developing an international standard for circular economy. It will involve harmonizing input from over 45 countries including the U.S. If you want your or your organization’s voice to be heard, participation in the ISO process involves joining the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which is open to any individual or organization. The TAG is administered through the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) under the purview of the American National Standards Association (ANSI).
In addition to ASTM, other U.S.-based industry groups are actively participating in the ISO process, including the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA), a multi-stakeholder group representing the responsible use of life cycle thinking. First Environment also continues to play a key role in ISO standard development. The firm’s president, Dr. Tod Delaney, has served as Convenor of the Task Force for Climate Change Coordination since 2014 and recently attended the first meeting of the circular economy standards group in May. In addition, Mike Levy, Senior Associate at First Environment, former plastics and chemical industry director, and certified life cycle executive (CLE), participates in the U.S. TAG and serves as co-chair of ACLCA’s Policy Committee.
One thing is for sure: soon there will be a globally recognized standard which defines circular economy and how to achieve it. We’ll be there to help shape what that looks like, will you?
For more information on this topic, visit the links below. You can also learn more at ACLCA’s upcoming annual international conference September 24-26 in Tucson, Arizona, where Mike Levy will present on the latest ISO standards developments related to life cycle and circular economy.
American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) – www.astm.org
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) – www.ansi.org
American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) – www.aclca.org