Economy in a circle
© iStock
March 2023

Economy in a circle

Whenever an object ends up in the garbage it ends up in the wrong place. The pace at which the amount of garbage is growing matches the pace at which important raw materials around the globe are dwindling. Consuming instead of using is a thing of the past: the future belongs to the system of a circular economy.

Initially, the number of activists was small but then it kept growing: In the summer of 1970, members of the Ecology Action Movement began meeting in a yard in Berkeley, California, gathering empty bottles, stacks of old newspapers, beverage cans. These regular recycling happenings held by environmentalists back then are deemed to have been the nucleus of American recycling programs because the idea caught on. Today, blue curbside bins for used glass, wastepaper, scrap metal and plastic packaging can be seen practically throughout the country on collection days. Curbing waste was in the wind back then: The Netherlands was another country in which engaged citizens started collecting old glass and forcing local governments to act, as well as people in Austria, later in the UK and in Scandinavia. In Germany, today, nearly 300,000 collection bins are regularly filled by millions of participating consumers.

Dazzling successes

Recycling of old glass and wastepaper can be seen as a successful model in many countries, but it obscures the view of larger dimensions – in terms of worldwide economic production. Armin Reller paints a global picture that brings home the spreading of waste across the whole planet: “Just like we send usable materials around the whole globe, waste streams travel around the whole globe,” said the former tenured professor and chair of the department of resource strategy at Augsburg University. Because these streams of electronic waste and construction waste, end-of-life vehicles, etc. are split into countless smaller streams the retrieval of products and materials that have become useless is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without a system specifically created for that purpose. Far too many raw materials are lost beyond recovery.

Johanna Pütz translates that into concrete figures: Around the world, only 25 to 35 percent of critical value streams are recycled whereas living in harmony with our planet would require at least 80 to 90 percent. Pütz, an expert in sustainability and recycling at Boston Consulting, explains what that means: “Today, we consume 1.8 times as many resources as the planet could permanently provide – and in the event of continuing our unchecked overexploitation it would be 2.3 times as many by 2040. To prevent that, prudent resource management is imperative.”

Raw materials under pressure

Rising prices, dwindling inventories and geostrategic changes are currently showing the importance of raw materials for economic production with striking clarity. A fact that tended to be ignored in times of cheap supply: all products are processed raw materials – and remain raw materials! However, instead of recovering and reusing them as effectively as possible we push them into a dead-end street. End-of-life products – from TV sets to smartphones, from furniture to packaging materials – are suddenly regarded as useless at the end of their direct utilization phase and end up in humongous quantities on landfills, in the countryside or in the furnaces of incineration plants, worldwide. In the worst case, they’re deemed to be hazardous or special waste.

Waste: That’s a concept provoking Michael Braungart to voice vigorous protest: “As soon as you even accept waste as a fact you’ve lost,” postulates the Hamburg chemist and originator of the cradle-to-cradle principle. “Nature knows no such thing as waste; we’re the only creatures producing waste. Nature knows only nutrients.” Based on that notion, he advocates a system in which all raw materials approaching the end of their utilization phase can start a new product life again as a raw material. Cradle-to-Cradle instead of Cradle-to-Grave like today.

New ways to mine raw materials

While the incessant search for new raw material deposits continues around the globe and their extraction under increasingly difficult conditions often entails massive encroachments on nature, while mining corporations practice “second mining” by digging through their dumps in search of residual ore to be recovered in enhanced extraction processes, prices at raw material exchanges keep rising. Yet there’s an obvious solution to the problem: urban mining, in other words harvesting of residues from our consumption-focused world can feed materials back into production circuits – provided they can be captured.

However, at this juncture, urban mining is facing several hurdles. Although all concepts such as Duales System, Sero, Upcycling, Zero Waste or Cradle-to-Cradle are committed to the idea of a circular economy none of them can solve existing practical problems, because:

  • Not enough products are returned into recycling processes for materials.
  • Product design massively complicates recovery of secondary raw materials or often makes it uneconomical.
  • There are not enough recycling technologies available yet for complex products.
  • New, i.e., primary raw materials are still too cheap – not least because the total environmental and social costs remain ignored.

In fact, we operate with a system that’s neither logical nor functional. As long as growth is deemed to be the desirable maxim of the economic system the players pushing products onto the market with shorter and shorter lifespans and increasingly higher replacement rates will be rewarded with economic success. Why should I care about keeping yesterday’s smartphone when a phone with even more features and gimmicks will hit the market tomorrow? Or larger TV sets or all kinds of gadgets?

Taking an interest in history

However, labeling consumers as naïve, shopping-frenzied resource hogs does not find favor with Heike Weber. The history of technology professor at TU Berlin understands the establishment of a recycling system for raw and therefore usable materials as a project for society as a whole, in which consumers increasingly act as important players and even drivers of progress. The reason is, says Weber, that people have a growing interest in the whole history of a product, including its previously ignored pre- and post-utilization phase. Knowing under which conditions and with what material and energy input a product is created, and what happens to it at the end of its useful life intensifies a consumer’s relationship with the product. Which, she adds, also generates a sense of responsibility – otherwise people wouldn’t care about a meaningful continuance of their obsolete objects, nor would products designed for greater sustainability but selling for a higher price find any buyers.

Knowledge breeds a sense of responsibility which in turn leads to active participation in recycling of materials – while enhancing the market opportunities for products manufactured in smarter ways.

Economy in a circle
Johanna Pütz, sustainability and recycling expert at Boston Consulting
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“To prevent overexploitation of our planet, prudent raw material management is imperative.”

That’s where Michael Braungart vigorously takes a stand in the raw materials discourse as well: Besides conscious consumers, enlightened producers making new product design a reality are needed. Currently, he criticizes, the focus with practically all products is placed on the actual utilization phase. They’re predominantly designed to be thrown away although the requisite materials could be installed in them for easy subsequent recovery – through reduced material diversity, bonds that are easier to dissolve and elimination of unnecessary additives. Largely homogeneously recoverable recyclates could easily be sold in the marketplace, he says.

Wanted: innovative methods

Talking about technology. That’s currently one of the key challenges confronting the establishment of a comprehensive material recycling system. Recycling simple fractions such as glass or paper is child’s play compared to recycling products with a complex design, says Baumgart. Even so, he’s confident that the necessary methods – such as the current practice of decomposing PET plastics using enzymes – will emerge. Innovative companies as well as consumers want to be part of the solution and no longer be part of the problem.

Key challenges to circularity across industries
Economy in a circle© Source: „A ‚Paris Agreement‘ for recycling the Earth’s resources“ von World Business Council For Sustainable Development und Boston Consulting Group

That said, is it conceivable that manufacturers and consumers can solve the problem of a circular economy on their own? Without any statutory provisions or regulatory controls? Heike Weber, Armin Reller and Michael Braungart unanimously take a dim view of bringing about secondary raw material production by means of laws and regulations. Simply put, because no one likes to have requirements imposed on them, let alone be forced to do something. Plus, the higher the pressure the greater the resistance.

Regarding the economy, Johanna Pütz points out another sphere of influence: Requirements might be constructive in the pre- and post-utilization phase, for instance by eliminating approvals for material- and energy-intensive manufacturing methods and harmful substances. The fast international phase-out of CFC production under the Montreal Protocol that largely stopped the depletion of the ozone layer is a case in point. The obligation imposed on retailers to take back discarded objects free of charge is also a helpful form of political control, according to Pütz. Policymakers – preferably on an international scale – issuing framework conditions and development targets could accelerate the shift from linear thinking, producing and consuming toward the circular system. The actual utilization phase, though, should be free from constraints – enlightened consumers, she feels, act reasonably anyway whereas enabling low-threshold participation in the circular economy for everyone is the responsibility of the business community and public administrations.

Annual global waste generated today and in 2040 (in metric/short tons)
Economy in a circle© Source: „A ‚Paris Agreement‘ for recycling the Earth’s resources“ von World Business Council For Sustainable Development und Boston Consulting Group
Waste incineration as a killer concept

However, there’s one area in which Reller, Braungart and Pütz view the current handling of “waste” to be on a totally wrong track: Waste incineration, they say, is the biggest mistake that can be made because it destroys secondary raw materials all but completely or makes them unusable. The aspect of energy production – misleadingly labeled as “thermal recycling” – is the wrong way to go, emphasizes Braungart, because the production of practically all materials consumes more energy than the amount that’s gained by burning them. Hence longer utilization of raw materials is clearly an imperative also in view of energy-related aspects.

“Which raw materials and resources will be important for the future, for the next generation of technologies,” Reller cautions,” is not foreseeable yet. “Waste contains many key substances, especially metals, that may still be insignificant now but may become incredibly important later. We may not have the technology yet to recover them but new technologies for selectively recovering such usable materials will be available in the future. We’re going to see a wave of new methods that are very exciting.”

Dumping instead of burning? The future calls for different concepts – and only the circle makes new beginnings possible.

Kay Dohnke
Author Kay Dohnke
As a freelance journalist, Kay Dohnke feels committed to covering sustainability topics. He’s always felt that recycling of wastepaper and empty bottles is important. However, the research for this article taught him that his German compatriots – contrary to frequently being touted as such – are not the world champions in garbage separation. That title belongs to the Japanese who collect secondary raw materials in 14 different categories.