It is a popular buzzword, but what does the circular economy entail? And how are businesses using the principles of the circular economy to become more sustainable while increasing their revenues?
Here is a disquieting fact: roughly 90 per cent of the world’s resources – which include the metals, plastics, wood, concrete, chemicals and all other materials in circulation – are used in a single product before becoming waste. In a world where countries and companies are facing the daunting challenge of reducing the environmental impact of their resource use, this must change.
The flipside is that this waste represents an enormous pool of resources that can be exploited with minimal impact on the environment. It is vital, however, that these resources are kept in a perpetual loop of use and reuse using renewable energy sources to ensure sustainability. There must also be an understanding that every actor in the economy (company, person or organism) is connected to other actors, and that the actions of one influence the others (this is known as systems thinking).
Envision it as an economy emulating the world of Lego: a world where all products consist of parts, materials and compounds that can be used repeatedly, sometimes in vastly different products, over their lifetime, supported by an infrastructure that encourages the flow of used materials, the use of renewable energy, and the understanding that we are all connected.
The circular economy is the opposite of the linear economy, where materials go through a finite cycle of extraction, transformation into products and then to waste. Instead, the circular economy is centred around using fewer materials, increasing the lifetime of every single product, making new products from used materials and extracting resources from waste.
Building a global, circular economy will not be done overnight. It requires significant changes in product design, manufacturing, material management and infrastructure, as well as a transition to renewable energy sources, unprecedented cooperation across industries and sectors, and a new way of thinking.
This article focuses on resources, whose role in the circular economy can be summarised in four central tenets: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.
Read on for a deeper dive into the building blocks of the circular economy – and examples of how Norwegian companies are putting them into practice.
Norsk Gjenvinning produces high-quality paper from waste paper – making it a more attractive recycled material.
Reduce: Limit waste by increasing material use efficiency
A circular economy is wholly dependent on using as few materials as possible. The logic is simple: using fewer materials in manufacturing means that more products can be produced with fewer resources and less waste. Here, advances in production technology are essential. One process that shows great promise is additive manufacturing.
Traditional manufacturing often involves chipping and carving and milling away the material until the required shape is achieved. Additive manufacturing turns this on its head: instead of a process where layers are removed to get the right shape, and in the process creating waste, layers are added in the precise geometric shape needed. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3D printing, additive manufacturing can significantly reduce the amount of materials needed for producing parts and components.
Take titanium production, for example. Using conventional methods, 150 metric tons of raw material are needed to produce 15 metric tons of titanium components, meaning that only 10 per cent of the raw material is utilised. But by using additive manufacturing and its patented Rapid Plasma Deposition technology, the titanium manufacturer Norsk Titanium cuts the amount of waste in half, thereby significantly reducing the amount of raw materials needed.
In a similar vein, the Norwegian company Hy5 manufactures its state-of-the-art prosthetics with 3D printing, reducing material needs to the bare minimum.
Another approach is to design products for multipurpose use – when a single product can do more, less raw materials are needed. A good example is BRIGHT Products, a producer of solar lamps for off-grid communities and humanitarian operations. The company’s multifunctional SunBell Smart lamp can be used as a flashlight, ceiling lamp, task light, flashlight and smartphone charger.
MyHand from Hy5 is manufactured out of lightweight 3D-printed titanium and plastic.
Reuse: Smarter distribution
In a circular economy, the way products are used is just as important as the way they are made. Libraries are perhaps the best example of the reuse principle, where a single book can cover the need of hundreds of readers. The circular economy aims to expand this practice.
The Norwegian enterprises Fjong and Tise, for example, bring the circular mindset to the fashion industry. Fast fashion is a source of tremendous pollution, including microplastic marine pollution, and one way of addressing this is to increase the use of the clothes we buy. The Tise app is tailor-made for reselling or gifting used clothes, significantly lowering the threshold for those who want to buy used clothes instead of new. Fjong, meanwhile, enables customers to rent clothes instead of buying them, thus combating the tendency to buy clothes and use them only once or twice.
There are also Nabobil and Hyre – platforms that facilitate lending and renting of private cars, thereby reducing the need for individual car ownership. Similarly, Nabohjelp facilitates borrowing, instead of buying, of power tools and equipment for home maintenance.
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Recycle: Make new products from used materials
Recycling is the process of making new products from used materials. In some industries, recycling is widespread. Aluminium, for example, is infinitely recyclable and recycling only requires 5 per cent of the original energy needed. Norsk Hydro is at the cutting edge here, using renewable energy, energy-efficient processes and recycled aluminium.
Consumers are also involved. Spearheaded by the Infinitum Movement, and aided by technological solutions from companies such as TOMRA Collection Solutions, Norway recycles 97 per cent of all cans and bottles in circulation.
One potential issue with recycling is that some recycled products are of inferior quality to new ones. When it comes to paper, at least, that is no longer true: Norsk Gjenvinning produces recycled paper whose quality is just as good as virgin paper.
Norsk Hydro’s pilot plant in Karmøy is the world’s most climate and energy-efficient aluminium production plant.
Recover: Turn waste into resources
All industries produce waste and by-products. In a circular economy, this waste is mined for resources. In addition to providing the economy with valuable resources without having to harvest them from nature, using waste as a resource provides incentives for waste management, thereby directly preventing pollution.
There are a number of innovative examples of Norwegian companies finding new ways to utilise waste – often across sectors. Marealis, for instance, uses discarded prawn shells from the seafood industry to make a natural supplement that has been clinically proven to lower blood pressure.
Hias, meanwhile, has developed a biological process for treating wastewater. Up to 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released untreated into nature, posing health risks for both humans and ecosystems. The Hias Process cleans wastewater while also extracting phosphorus, which is a valuable resource for the agricultural sector.
Waste-to-energy (WtE) is another prime example of the recovery principle in practice, where household waste is used for producing energy and heat. The Norwegian company OiW Process takes this one step further in its NORSEP Process, using the ash from WtE plants to create valuable materials such as zinc and concrete.
Heavy industries are also using their unwanted by-products to create something valuable. Finnfjord is using CO₂ emissions from its ferrosilicon production to feed algae, which are a highly promising and sustainable raw material for the future.
Although all of these cases represent incremental steps towards a completely circular economy, they show that the technology and knowledge to go circular is present in a range of sectors. For an in-depth look at the road towards a fully circular economy, read the interview with the people behind Circular Norway here.
Sometimes big things come in small packages. The Hias Process cleans wastewater without chemicals and recycles 50 per cent of phosphorus extracted into high-grade fertiliser.