A “circular economy” is nothing new, although the migration of society towards a more sustainable lifestyle as a goal has brought it to the forefront. Any maintenance person or office manager that works for a cost-conscious business has engaged in a circular economy, whether they realize it or not.
A shift in our collective thinking has brought this concept to the forefront. We have moved away from tossing everything once it serves its purpose and shifted to a desire to re-engineer, repurpose, and recycle to save money and resources.
This mindset has almost-infinite possibilities in the engineering world, including developing restorative or regenerative equipment and processes that prolong the life of equipment, parts, and even infrastructure, conserving resources and reducing the cost of replacement.
Understanding the concept of a sustainable economy is necessary to see its application across engineering specialties. In the simplest form, a sustainable economy repurposes or reuses as much as possible to reduce waste. It goes beyond recycling by focusing on reusing or re-engineering for more product use before discarding it.
The aforementioned office manager repurposing office equipment versus throwing away old equipment in favor of newer items is a good example of the practical effects of a circular economy. When a laptop, for example, is turned in by an employee, technology lifecycles dictate the old gets discarded. Under the circular model, that laptop will receive an upgrade and reassignment.
The World Economic Forum estimates that world economies use approximately 60 percent more resources than the earth can regenerate yearly. Even if you half that figure, the Earth’s replenishable resources continue to deplete beyond a sustainable level.
If one includes estimated growth in world population and economies, that figure grows and becomes unsustainable over a very shorter period. The same organization estimates that the world population will grow steadily over the next 30 years.
Apart from the argument that we cannot support this degree of resource utilization, there is the argument that continuing to use that many resources annually will eventually result in diminishing returns. In this scenario, the earth continues to deplete even as demand grows until the resources get used up, or the lack of resources negatively affects the quality of life.
Others make the argument for sustainability as it pertains to climate change. Even if that is only a periphery consideration, simple math demonstrates that you can only take more than you need or more than is sustainable for so long until a resource becomes scarce.
At the heart of a circular economy is the approach to “waste.” Under the traditional definition, waste is anything we no longer need and throw away. In the circular economy model, any waste that can be recycled, repurposed, or re-engineered becomes a potential resource. Waste, by definition, in a circular economy, only exists when there is no other option.
Giving a used computer more computing power rather than replacing it is one thing. In engineering, that concept expands to cover everything from raw materials used to finished products, focusing on moving away from the discovery-creation-manufacturing-use-discard mindset.
The new goal is a discovery-creation-manufacturing-use-repurpose- recycle-or reengineer lifecycle for as many products as possible. That accomplishes three main objectives.
Waste gets reduced until the only things truly discarded have outlived any usefulness, including recycling back to raw materials (such as recycling plastic for reuse in new plastic products.)
Reusing any aspect of an existing component reduces the need to exploit further natural resources. By recycling, for instance, there is no need to develop new plastic products because older plastic gets reprocessed to allow for the creation of new plastic products.
The same goals are fulfilled by repurposing older products, although some new resources will be used for certain components. Repurposing a laptop is a good example of this. The laptop’s circuits, display, sensors, and casing are the same, but a battery will likely need replacing to achieve optimum functionality.
Additional resources are also needed when a product gets reengineered. However, we attain saving resources when components that are not re-engineered but still included in the final product get reused.
Repurpose, Reuse or Recycle
Recycling or reusing products is not always feasible, and repurposing a product to serve another role in those cases entirely achieves the same goals. Using discarded plastic, plus household, municipal and industrial waste to produce fuel, for example, finds a new role and function for plastic that would otherwise end up in landfills and waste that would get put through the sanitation cycle.
Of all of the benefits of a circular economy, the total financial savings is as yet unknown. The savings in resources is undeniable, but there are also savings in avoiding buying new products. Those savings come in many forms:
- Avoiding having to collect raw materials
- Manufacturing costs
- Costs associated with getting the right products to customers (transportation, security, packaging, etc.)
- Backend costs associated with new equipment, parts, and materials (training new users, for example)
- Savings in avoiding discarding of equipment, parts, etc.
Practical Engineering Applications
A circular economy gives engineers several bites of the apple for one product or the development of new products. In addition to designing products made of sustainable materials, design teams will be able to develop new designs focused on providing immediate benefits and re-utilization friendly.
Additionally, after the use of raw resources is reduced, the emphasis will shift to creating products with longer lifespans and serving multiple purposes as part of their original design.
These functions will reinvent engineering and design, regardless of the industry. Housing designs using sustainable and recycled or recyclable products are already underway, and that mindset is bleeding over into vehicles, appliances, tools, etc. The sky truly is the limit for an enterprising engineer or entrepreneur.
A circular economy reuses as much of a product as possible to avoid using resources unnecessarily and to save waste and money. The concept is being embraced more and more across industries. For engineering, a circular economy promises to be a rebirth regarding how engineers think and what they design.