Global yearly waste is around 2 billion tonnes, and estimates suggest that, at current rates, by 2050 it will have increased to 3.4 billion tonnes. Unfortunately, less than 20% of our waste is recycled, the remainder is sent to landfill. At the same time, at our current rate of resource extraction, by 2050 we will be consuming three times as much of the earth’s resources as we currently do.
To combat the increases in waste and reduce extraction, governments, companies, and manufacturers are encouraging a transition to a “circular economy”. So, what is a circular economy, why is it important, and what technologies are facilitating the transition?
The economy we currently have is linear, meaning products in the economy have a lifecycle with a clear start and definite end. Also known as a “take, make, use, waste” economy, it focusses on the extraction and transformation of raw materials into products, with little to no attention paid to what happens to those products once they’ve been used. As time passes, there are fewer resources available and more waste to deal with.
A circular economy changes the lifecycle of products to loop back on itself, minimising the amount of waste produced and natural resources extracted. Instead of throwing away products like phones or clothes, making them into waste, they can be repaired, refurbished, or recycled, turning them into component materials and parts that can be used in the re-manufacturing process. For biodegradable products, like food or timber, the material can be transformed into a new product, or fed back into nature by regenerative processes.
In the long term, changing the design of products is the most essential component for a transition to a circular economy. According to EU data, up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the design phase. However, in the near and medium term, an important goal is the improved recycling of materials used in manufacturing.
Although we’ve not yet transitioned to a fully circular economy, there are companies and projects underway that operate in a circular manner.
One example of where a circular approach to production is being taken is the extraction of the critical minerals needed to support the clean energy transition. The production of battery storage and electric vehicles use many critical minerals – lithium, nickel, cobalt and so on. Due to their batteries, electric vehicles (EVs) use five times the amount of critical minerals compared to internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Currently, estimates suggest that around only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, and it has been widely documented that the planet’s supply of lithium isn’t sufficient to meet the demand required for a 2050 net zero transition. Plasma technology, as used by our client Tetronics, can help to reclaim significant portions of the critical minerals from EV batteries, alleviating the need for primary resource extraction. Using an arc of plasma (ionised gas), used batteries are heated in a furnace which allows for the separation of the critical minerals from the other materials. As an electric heating method, it can also use 100% renewably sourced energy, reducing the emissions required to recycle.
EV batteries aren’t the only part of the electric vehicle value chain that can benefit from a circular transition. EV chargers also use a significant number of plastics, critical minerals, and materials the lives of which can be extended beyond their linear lifetime. Rather than install, use, and waste, chargers can be decommissioned, and their parts reused or recycled. Our client, EV charging company Mer, has been running a charging asset decommissioning programme in Germany to pilot the best ways to transition to more circular uses of EV charging infrastructure. As projects like this progress, larger parts of the EV ecosystem will become more circular while also helping us transition to more sustainable modes of private and public transport.
Making the move away from a circular economy is crucial to reducing waste and preserving the earth’s finite resources. At Resonates, we are supporting companies to raise market awareness about their circular projects, products, and transition to a less linear, less wasteful economy. To stay up to date with developments like the circular economy, subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter, Cleantech News Roundup.