Closing the circularity gap is crucial in order to prevent further environmental degradation and social inequality. The circularity goal is to establish an ecologically safe and socially just operating space in which all countries have a pivotal role to play.
The circular economy is an economic model in which there is no waste, and where the products of today include the raw materials of tomorrow. This is called circular, because unlike the current system - linear -where the main thing is to make and use products- circular products do not end up as waste in our environment, but are -in their existing or processed form- sent back to a (new) manufacturing process.
A circular economy seeks to redefine growth, with an emphasis on positive benefits at the scale of society. The idea is to gradually decouple economic activity from the consumption of limited resources and to design waste outside the system. Supported by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds social, natural and economic capital. It is based on the principle of designing out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, restore natural systems.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org) describes the circular economy as such:
For many companies, the concept of a circular economy has only recently become a priority, mostly prompted by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. Accelerated as effect of the Covid-19 world pandemic, the EU members states leaders agreed in the further increase of the bloc's emission-reduction target to 55% by 2030. Theoretically most of the initiative takers understand the concept of thinking about products and services through the entire life cycle, however in practice several hurdles appear which are mostly linked to the fact that each product design is not conceptualized with an aftermath, complementary or substitute thinking.
A growing number of circular initiative takers from the private sector try to circularize whether it be through their strategic policies and/or their products however often the focus lays in the more traditional sustainable strategies such as recycle and recover which steams from the usefulness of materials based on a more linear economy mindset. However a bigger impact can be made by higher-level sustainability strategies such as breaking the “bubbles” and partnering with educational institutions, or other (Tech) companies and even implement novel circular business models in order to create smarter product use and manufacture aligning with a truly circular economy.
Circular economy strategies. Source: PBL (2017). Circular economy: measuring innovation in the product chain, J.Potting, M. Hekkert, E. Worrell et al..
The main hurdles organizations face when pursuing true circularity can be categorized as: Mindset block, No track adjustment, Stuck in a “bubble” and failing to “think big”.
The mindset block often impairs the efforts made by circular initiative takers, indeed a more “holistic” vision of the whole process is needed in order to have a real beneficial impact. This means that a change is required in order to develop new strategies for production systems for instance, a new strategy that makes process of products/services simultaneously circular and efficient both in quality and productivity. A (new) way of thinking is necessary when implementing CE strategies in which rethinking and revising actual business models are needed in order to implement valuable CE strategies for an organization. In fact using Technological solutions 4.0 cannot be the only outcome as being circular only in the name will have an averse effect on the organization sooner than later.
The no track adjustment barrier arise due to the misconception that adding a new set of indicators for circularity metrics without rethinking the value of the existing metrics which are often based solely on a linear economy will suffice in becoming truly circular. In fact, it is essential to integrate the concepts of circular economy in the calculation of traditional indicators, which might prompt a complete rethinking of the product or service. Circularity needs to be considered at the start of the design process and cannot be done “on the side”. Moreover, the no track adjustment means that products are developed thinking about the consumer without adapting its course into taking into account the waste phase and current technologies for recycling and post-processing.
Stuck in a “bubble” touches on the fact that the core purpose of circularity is that waste is not seen as such anymore but as resource. “Waste” is usually found at the end use of the entire value chain, which is why opening up to collaboration with other organizations / educational institutions is essential. Products and services that are truly circular are developed in a way that the materials can be reused, ideally many times over in a continuous flow. For this reason, it is crucial for knowledge to be shared among practitioners, academics, consumers, technological solutioners and other potential players in order to reach the high level of circularity. When looking at the European Union member states environment level, the collaboration throughout the supply chain parties regardless of sectors and industries remains minimal. One of the current hurdles to truly integrating the circular economy into processes is the lack of standardized indicators, methodologies and tools as each strategy gets implemented as a separate entity within a constraint environment. This does not allow the needed joint diagnosis of the production process and the treatment of the resource waste produced, as we mostly operate in our own environment without looking/knowing what is done elsewhere when CE strategies could be adopted and implemented at a greater scale in a bid to encourage and accelerate the circular economy.
Failing to “think big” means that often current organization strategies aim at reducing resource consumption but fail to consider the effects that would come from increasing the use of resources in a process linked to a reduction in the net water consumption of the resource due to its re-circulation. Scaling up circular strategies is needed however it is often a big challenge for organizations. This challenge is partly due to the fact that consumers also need to change their mindset regarding their behaviour, for instance sharing or renting instead of owning. Furthermore, consumers need to take the steps required for a higher level of circularity, for example bringing their product back for repair, using rental services/products and bringing it back there. This means that incentives beyond sustainability, even if the Covid-19 world pandemic accelerated sustainability awareness, need to be implemented and price, efficiency, convenience can play a major role.