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The Circular Economy Takes Recycling Further

The Circular Economy Takes Recycling Further

The Circular Economy Concept

The circular economy takes recycling one step further, making it a more efficient method of resource use than single cycle recycling.

Consumers, small business and larger corporations alike are increasingly moving towards more sustainable alternatives when making purchasing decisions — both in terms of their choice of products purchased (including packaging) and the shipping methods used to deliver these goods. There is also greater participation in recycling, with more and more people actively recycling materials wherever they can. But what happens to these materials once they are recycled? More often than not, recycled materials are recycled once and then they end up on a landfill anyway.

For the last twenty years or so, the main focus has been on recycling, which has in effect been the primary goal. Yet very little attention has been given to whether these recycled materials were being used in the manufacture of secondary products. The 'circular economy' concept changes the single cycle recycling way of thinking, extending this by striving to keep materials in continuous use throughout their lifespan, minimizing both natural resource use and waste generation, as well as the environmental impacts associated with waste disposal. The circular economy concept can be applied to any material or product, as well as the raw materials used to manufacture those products.

Circular Economy: The Bigger Picture

The 'circular economy' concept takes a broader and long-term view of things. For example, when one considers the environmental footprint associated with recycling, such as transportation to the sorter and/or recycler, recycling in itself may not be environmentally positive, unless those recycled materials are kept in a continual loop of reuse, being used over and over again to manufacture new products.

In a recent interview, Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle — the largest consumer battery recycling organization in the US — gave some valuable insights into the concept of the circular economy, as well as ways in which Call2Recycle incorporates this concept into its business methods, for example, in the recycling of zinc oxide from alkaline batteries.

"Zinc oxide is a byproduct of the alkaline battery recycling process that is sold on the commodities market. Zinc has value in so many different products. In the past, we made sure our recycled zinc was sold to make new products," says Smith. "Now we are asking different questions. How much recycled zinc vs. virgin zinc is used in these products? Can we increase how much recycled zinc is used versus virgin zinc? How can we ensure that all the zinc we recycle is in a cycle of use, recycle, reuse, and not reach a place where its reuse ends, such as when used as an additive to fertilizer," Smith continues. "That is the dilemma of the circular economy. You may optimize the recovery zinc through a particular recycling process but if it is used to make a product that can no longer be reused or recycled, then you've fallen short of the goals of a circular economy. You may 'win' short term by delivering a higher recycling efficiency but you've lost the opportunity to have materials such as zinc become part of a bigger lifecycle. That's the heart of the circular economy," explains Smith.

According to Smith, the biggest hurdle to businesses adopting the circular economy is the lack of clear benchmarking metrics or methodology to guide businesses in best practices of handling and recycling materials.

"For example, to what extent is an indicator of the amount of materials diverted from the landfill a good measurement? How does that take into account waste to energy as an appropriate alternative, particularly for materials that are very difficult, if not impossible to recycle? For example, in some cases disposing of materials in the landfill is less energy intensive than recycling. In that case, the optimal solution is disposal, but that counts against you in current metrics," Smith points out. "Recycling efficiency rates can also be misleading. They measure a point in time to optimize what is recovered but don't take into account if the recycled materials reach end of life in the next production cycle (as fertilizer) or are used in a product that downgrades its characteristics (think of recycled paper being used to make toilet paper)," Smith explains. "In the battery world, the optimal solution is for its recycled materials to be used to manufacture new batteries. It's the most energy efficient and maximizes reuse of the recycled materials."

Featured Image by Zeronaut .be [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

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