4 Key Stages of the Circular Economy
The Circular Economy, Part 4/4: The circular economy isn't synonymous with "reduce, reuse, recycle," but it's also more inclusive of this lifestyle than a community might think. We've told three stories of circular infrastructure, and the benefits it offers to their respective communities, but what do they have in common? They all follow the same four steps.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a life that many try to live, yet struggle to define.
We know what a product’s final form might be — a rug, clothing, fertilizer or a new iteration of the same product. But how it can unburden manufacturers, lessen the waste stream and shrink the community’s carbon footprint is the definition companies like Veolia recognize as the way to innovate a practice that many do for individual reasons. Today, it defines the circular economy.
The circular economy represents a material’s next use, closing the loop on something that may otherwise end up in a landfill, and it is best demonstrated at the manufacturing level. Still, the concept can seem opaque or hard to connect with. But whether it’s a water recycling plant, a food-powered wastewater facility or just a local plastic collection program, one can go circular by doing a number of things that put resources back into an operation — even if it's not the same one in which it began. So, what is the circular economy? It takes place over these four stages:
The circular economy starts with the purchase, and the appeal is in a product’s design. Everything that undergoes a circular lifecycle is “designed for disassembly,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and this makes the next product valuable in some way to the next user. This value manifests in a couple of ways: While consumers purchase recycled metals and plastics for their durability, energy producers and irrigation services buy recycled water at specific purity levels to meet the water quality requirements of their processes.
Next stop is use. Materials in the circular economy don’t just age out as time passes; they’re consumed for exactly what they were designed to offer. This is a terrific guidepost for our behavior not just at home, but in many industrial processes as well, because it makes sure we deplete a resource before discarding it. For example, when refineries use sulfuric acid to produce alkylate — the preferred gasoline additive for increasing fuel efficiency — they’re actually “spending” this acid in a way that is visible in its quality. Partners like Veolia then reclaim this spent acid and regenerate it back into the original compound to make more alkylate.
Repurposing is the hallmark of a circular operation. It gives resources another life, and often lowers a business’s overhead when redistributing a product. At this stage, however, you may not be repurposing the same product you started with. You can also repurpose a byproduct. When combined heat and power (CHP) plants generate and use electricity, for example, they’re designed to capture the steam from that process so it isn’t lost to the environment. District energy systems in cities like Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia refer to this efficient steam generation as Green Steam, and it makes for an affordable, low-carbon alternative to independent heating systems in each building.
Redistribution is critical to making sure a circular solution is sustainable from end to end; communities need a way of capturing the repurposed product and delivering it to the next customer. A town’s garbage collectors can team up with manufacturers on products like plastic, metal, paper, glass and the like, but so can its utility systems on other, commercial refuse. Wastewater plants need to stay up and running during a citywide blackout or crisis, which is why some more progressive plants are now designed to power themselves on organics from fats, oils and greases (FOGs). By partnering with local food distributors, they can intercept this material when it’s disposed of, lessen the community waste stream and get this product ready for its next purchase.
The circular economy may go beyond the blue recycling bin, but it isn’t an exclusive class of sustainability. From a water bottle to the water itself, most of our finite resources are candidates for a less wasteful world.
Read Part 3 of this series on the circular economy here.