Zero Waste Manufacturing: How Can We Transition to a Circular Economy?

Waste is an inevitable aspect of being human in today’s world — or so most people believe. But what if we told you that reducing and even eliminating waste is possible? All we have to do to get to that point is convince a few key industry sectors to start doing things a bit differently. Basically, we need to transition to a circular economy model.

If you’ve never heard of the term, we can’t blame you. Most people don’t go around researching the economic system they live in — let alone alternative methods of production. Still, learning about circular economy is a great way to introduce other concepts — like Zero Waste manufacturing.

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Of course, before we can do all that, we have to be aware of the system we currently have. With that in mind, let’s start by talking about the cause of the waste accumulation we are dealing with today.

Is Linear Economy Outdated?

Most people know that the amount of waste production and accumulation we are fighting against was ultimately caused by our economic system. The principles of linear economy are fairly simple. We take what we need from nature, and we transform these raw materials into products, which we dispose of when they’re no longer of use. Proponents of this system assumed that the planet is capable of providing infinite resources and regenerating an infinite amount of waste.

As we now know, that is simply not the case. So the system’s goal of maximizing production and sales has become impossible to envision without also seeing the eventual consequences.

After all, to keep production cycles going, we also need to create demand. That’s why many commodities we buy nowadays fall apart so quickly. The sooner your shirt rips open at the seams, the sooner you’ll go looking for a new one. But before we start pointing fingers at the fast fashion industry, remember that the system affects all commercial enterprises.

Is There a Different Kind of Approach We Can Opt for?

The excessive production and turnover of commodities we see in the linear economy are all but guaranteed to produce an enormous amount of waste. But as any waste management expert will tell you — it’s never too late to veer toward another approach.

Circular Economy

In recent years, many people have been considering the benefits of transitioning to a Zero Waste lifestyle. Basically, rather than throwing their used up and damaged items, the goal of Zero Waste is to find a way to use them again. Whether it’s composting, making bags out of ripped jeans, or turning broken pans into planters — people are having to be creative with items they would have otherwise tossed in the trash.

But while most people are familiar with the philosophy in general, not many are aware of who started Zero Waste. Believe it or not, the phrase was coined in the ‘80s. However, Daniel Knapp, one of the first people who formulated the idea of total recycling, didn’t just talk the talk. Instead, he and his wife founded a salvaging market, Urban Ore, to focus on diverting waste from their local landfill and reusing it within the community.

Over the years, their ideas inspired many others to look for ways to reduce their waste production. Eventually, those principles reached the waste management industry and society at large. All through the ‘90s and early ‘00s, “no waste” slogans were everywhere. But where did all that activism lead?

The Birth of Circular Economy

The idea of a cyclical system of production is certainly older than the modern Zero Waste philosophy. However, the concept of a circular economy wasn’t mentioned until 1988. Even then, shifting perspectives around the subject of waste production and management certainly helped popularize the idea.

Ultimately, the philosophies behind these two concepts are closely aligned. Both aim to reduce and eventually eliminate the production of waste. Unlike the linear approach we discussed earlier, circular economy is all about letting the Earth recover and minimizing the amount of raw resources we take from it. But in addition to benefiting the planet, the principles of sustainable production also need to benefit businesses.

After all, rather than paying for raw materials that are directly taken from nature, circular economy advocates for reusing and recycling already-processed materials. That should reduce the cost of production — in theory. Unfortunately, recycling technology is still too expensive for some businesses to invest in. So how can we, as consumers, nudge them in the right direction?

How Do We Start Transitioning to Circular Economy?

On an individual level, one thing we can all do is check our consumption habits. Don’t just throw out old items if you don’t have to. Instead, learn how to mend and transform objects into items you can keep using and loving.

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Additionally, you can transition to shopping from sustainable local businesses. Ultimately, the cost of shipping is much greater than you might think. If nothing else, shopping locally tends to have a lower carbon footprint.

These individual decisions should eventually influence businesses to reduce the number of commodities they produce in the first place. But there’s one more thing we can do to prompt the industry to change its ways. Namely, we can influence policies with our vote.

Getting people to participate in this as a political movement is the best way to put pressure on companies. If there are laws and sanctions in place to regulate the production of commodities and waste, businesses will have to adjust their habits.

Can We Achieve Zero Waste Manufacturing?

As we have previously stated, all we need to transition to Zero Waste manufacturing is a few key industry sectors. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, these sectors should be steel, plastic, and aluminum manufacturing, as well as cement and food industries. By getting these five sectors to reuse materials during the production process in the factory, we could cut carbon emissions by 3.7 billion tons by 2050.

Best of all, the emerging models of circular economy will not only stimulate business growth but also create many new job opportunities. So the sooner we take that leap, the sooner our planet can start recovering.

Circular Economy: Past, Present and Future

For a society accustomed to the achievements of a linear economy, the transition to a circular economic system is a hard task even to contemplate. Although the changes needed may seem daunting, it is important to remember that we have already come a long way. However, the history of the waste hierarchy has taught that political perseverance and unity of approach are essential to achieving long term visions in supply chain management.

Looking back, it is helpful to view the significance of the Lansink’s Ladder in the light of the sustainability gains it has already instigated. From the outset, the Ladder encountered criticism, in part because the intuitive preference order it expresses is not (and has never been put forward as) scientifically rigorous. Opposition came from those who feared the hierarchy would impede economic growth and clash with an increasingly consumerist society. The business community expressed concerns about regulatory burdens and the cost of implementing change.

Circular-Economy

However, such criticism was not able to shake political support, either in Holland where the Ladder was adopted in the Dutch Environmental Protection Act of 1979, or subsequently across Europe, as the Waste Hierarchy was transposed into national legislation as a result of the revised Waste Framework Directive.

Prevention, reuse and recycling have become widely used words as awareness has increased that our industrial societies will eventually suffer a shortage of raw materials and energy. So, should we see the waste hierarchy as laying the first slabs of the long road to a circular economy? Or is the circular economy a radical new departure?

Positive and negative thinking

There have been two major transitionary periods in waste management: public health was the primary driver for the first, from roughly 1900 to 1960, in which waste removal was formalised as a means to avoid disease. The second gained momentum in the 1980s, when prevention, reuse and recovery came on the agenda. However, consolidation of the second transition has in turn revealed new drivers for a third. Although analysing drivers is always tricky – requiring a thorough study of causes and effects – a general indication is helpful for further discussion. Positive (+) and negative (-) drivers for a third transition may be:

(+) The development of material supply chain management through the combination of waste hierarchy thinking with cradle to cradle eco design;

(+) The need for sustainable energy solutions;

(+) Scarcity of raw materials necessary for technological innovation; and

(+) Progressive development of circular economy models, with increasing awareness of social, financial and economic barriers.

(-) Growth of the global economy, especially in China and India, and later in Africa;

(-) Continued growth in global travel;

(-) Rising energy demand, exceeding what can be produced from renewable energy sources and threatening further global warming;

(-) Biodiversity loss, causing a further ecological impoverishment; and

(-) Conservation of the principle of ownership, which hinders the development of the so-called ‘lease society’. 

A clear steer

As the direction, scale and weight of these drivers are difficult to assess, it’s necessary to steer developments at all levels to a sustainable solution. The second transition taught that governmental control appears indispensable, and that regulation stimulates innovation so long as adequate space is left for industry and producers to develop their own means of satisfying their legislated responsibilities.

The European Waste Framework Directive has been one such stimulatory piece of legislation. Unfortunately, the EC has decided to withdraw its Circular Economy package, which would otherwise now be on track to deliver the additional innovation needed to achieve its goals – including higher recycling targets. Messrs. Juncker and Timmermans must now either bring forward the more ambitious legislation they have hinted at, or explain why they have abandoned the serious proposals of their predecessors.

Perhaps the major differences between Member States and other countries may require a preliminary two-speed policy, but any differences in timetable between Western Europe and other countries should not stand in the way of innovation, and differences of opinion between the European Parliament and the Commission must be removed for Europe to remain credible.

Governmental control requires clear rules and definitions, and for legislative terminology to be commensurate with policy objectives. One failing in this area is the use of the generic term ‘recovery’ to cover product reuse, recycling and incineration with energy recovery, which confuses the hierarchy’s preference order. The granting of R1 status to waste incineration plants, although understandable in terms of energy diversification, turns waste processors into energy producers benefiting from full ovens. Feeding these plants reduces the scope for recycling (e.g. plastics) and increases COemissions. When relatively inefficient incinerators still appear to qualify for R1 status, it offers confusing policy signals for governments, investors and waste services providers alike.

The key role for government also is to set clear targets and create the space for producers and consumers to generate workable solutions. The waste hierarchy’s preference order is best served by transparent minimum standards, grouped around product reuse, material recycling or disposal by combustion. For designated product or material categories, multiple minimum standards are possible following preparation of the initial waste streams, which can be tightened as technological developments allow.

Where the rubber meets the road

As waste markets increase in scale, are liberalised, and come under international regulation, individual governmental control is diminished. These factors are currently playing out in the erratic prices of secondary commodities and the development of excess incinerator capacity in some nations that has brought about a rise in RDF exports from the UK and Italy. Governments, however, may make a virtue of the necessity of avoiding the minutiae: ecological policy is by definition long-term and requires a stable line; day to day control is an impossible and undesirable task.

The road to the third transition – towards a circular economy – requires a new mind-set from government that acknowledges and empowers individuals. Not only must we approach the issue from the bottom-up, but also from the side and above. Consumer behaviour must be steered by both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ controls: through information and communication, because of the importance of psychological factors; but also through financial instruments, because both consumers and industry are clearly responsive to such stimuli.

Where we see opposition to deposit return schemes, it comes not from consumers but from industry, which fears the administrative and logistical burden. The business community must be convinced of the economic opportunities of innovation. Material supply chain management is a challenge for designers and producers, who nevertheless appreciate the benefits of product lifetime extensions and reuse. When attention to environmental risks seems to lapse – for example due to financial pressures or market failures – then politics must intervene.

Government and industry should therefore get a better grip on the under-developed positive drivers of the third transition, such as eco design, secondary materials policy, sustainable energy policy, and research and development in the areas of bio, info, and nanotechnologies. 

Third time’s the charm

Good supply chain management stands or falls with the way in which producers and consumers contribute to the policies supported by government and society. In order that producers and consumers make good on this responsibility, government must first support their environmental awareness.

The interpretation of municipal duty of care determines options for waste collection, disposal and processing. Also essential is the way in which producer responsibility takes shape, and the government must provide a clear separation of private and public duties. Businesses may be liable for the negative aspects of unbridled growth and irresponsible actions. It is also important for optimal interaction with the European legislators: a worthy entry in Brussels is valuable because of the international aspects of the third transition. Finally, supply chain management involves the use of various policy tools, including:

  • Rewarding good behaviour
  • Sharpening minimum standards
  • Development and certification of CO2 tools
  • Formulation and implementation of end-of-waste criteria
  • Remediation of waste incineration with low energy efficiency
  • Restoration or maintenance of a fair landfill tax
  • Application of the combustion load set at zero

‘Seeing is believing’ is the motto of followers of the Apostle Thomas, who is chiefly remembered for his propensity for doubt. The call for visible examples is heard ever louder as more questions are raised around the feasibility of product renewal and the possibilities of a circular economy.

Ultimately, the third transition is inevitable as we face a future of scarcity of raw materials and energy. However, while the direction is clear, the tools to be employed and the speed of change remain uncertain. Disasters are unnecessary to allow the realisation of vital changes; huge leaps forward are possible so long as government – both national and international – and society rigorously follow the preference order of the waste hierarchy. Climbing Lansink’s Ladder remains vital to attaining a perspective from which we might judge the ways in which to make a circle of our linear economy.

Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be found at this link.