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What is the Circular Economy and How Do We Get It?

The Circular Economy Action Plan was adopted by the EU Commission in 2015 is important because it address sustainable use of resources throughout the entire product lifecycle. The Commission planned to address policy gaps between chemical, product and waste legislation addressing the main obstacles that impede the process: not enough info about ‘substances of concern’ or SOC found in both products and waste, presence of SOC in recycled materials and no easy classification method for communicating recycling criteria or waste classifications.

Recently, industry groups from automotive, electronics, aerospace, textile, lighting, plastics, semiconductors, and SME’s put forth an opinion about a proposed database to collect such information for the Waste Framework Directive. This database requirement dropped in at the last minute, and wasn’t vetted through the normal stakeholder comment process. So, there are strong opinions about why this database will not be workable for industry nor be enforceable by authorities. The approach seems too unspecific and will be so unworkable in practice that it is not expected to fulfill the objectives of the Circular Economy. Indeed there are just way too many formats and intellectual property concerns for this amount of data to be collected and stored. And then how to avoid double reporting of parts and parts in assemblies along with the constant changing of materials due to quality, reliability, or environmental concerns.

Traceability of parts is complicated by the customization of existing trading partner relationships, different codes and formats for subcomponents and multiple supplier sources.

The Circular Economy is a good idea for industry and government, but perhaps it needs to be fostered in industry-sector specific solutions. Or trial it with one industry and add on others as it makes sense.

Companies realize that the linear model of TAKE, MAKE, then WASTE instead of the 3R’s of REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE is also inefficient, adds to both risks and resource utilization. Much like the symbiotic relationship of an aquatic reef, strategies where companies partner with customers or suppliers up or down stream can be beneficial. Resources are limited, and just like Dr. Brown in Back to the Future; we’ll eventually be mining our waste for all sorts of things.

In summary, although multiple industries from raw material manufacturers to complex durable goods now have drivers to start truly addressing a circular economy model, there are still multiple challenges. One model might resemble the Chinese Chemical Parks with co-located material & part manufacturing companies. To get to a true circular economy, there will need to be strategic alliances, new customer requirements, high level view of resource constraints, and the always needed leadership from the top. We need a political and business environment that fosters cooperation, brings the right experts together and supports multiple industries, not just giving tax breaks to one or two. That’s my two cents.

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