Circular economy is currently the magic word in the sustainability arena. And, as is often the case with new sustainability concepts, be it dematerialization, cradle-to-cradle or permanent materials, there is always a need to measure it with indicators. The danger of this is that the sustainability concepts take on a life on their own and become a seedbed of greenwashing.
Examples of circular economy?
Jeans made from recycled PET bottles, CO2 savings of PVC recycling or application of bio-composite and prevention of food waste by wrapping cucumbers in plastic foil. Just a few examples which are presented under the ‘green’ umbrella of circular economy.
But are they green?
Jeans wear out in the washing machine with plastic micro particles in our surface water as a result. PVC recycling is always better than not recycling but as long as PVC is used, the risk of human exposure to plasticizers remains. Food waste prevention through application of packaging is an effective approach to reduce the environmental footprint of food production. But that should not disguise the use of environmentally unfriendly packaging. And what is the added value of a bio-composite material that cannot be recycled because of its sandwich structure?
What are sustainable circular solutions?
Recycling, extending life span of products or bio based materials etcetera, are not by definition sustainable solutions. In the end, we seek solutions that generate economic and social value and at the same time, from a life-cycle perspective, do not:
- rely on fossil-based fuels
- require non-renewable or non-recyclable raw materials
- generate harmful emissions, waste and degradation or loss of biodiversity.
Circular economy indicators
The introduction of circular economy indicators (e.g. % recycled plastic or sales of refurbished products) may pose the risk that circularity becomes an end in itself. Zero or even positive environmental impact should be the ultimate goal.
This requires a holistic systems thinking approach that considers the functional application, (transport) energy system, nature of the materials, use and disposal scenarios etc. Instruments such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) take this into account and can be helpful to measure the environmental (and social) impact of circular initiatives.
Does this mean we should not use indicators for circular economy at all? No, they can certainly help to steer initiatives in the desired direction of sustainable development. However, it is important that we bear in mind that circular initiatives could also have negative environmental impacts and that we should always have a system perspective.