I wanted to share insights from Dr. Michael Braungart on circular economy. My focus this Spring in post-graduate work is centered on application of circular economy theory in supply chain optimization. In this passage, he describes the transition from linear processes to circular thinking wherein the total costs of product ownership and product’s lifecycle are critical to building effective industrial systems.
“Our current ‘eco-efficient’ view of sustainability sees materials flowing through the system in one direction only – from input to an output that is either consumed or disposed of in the form of waste. Eco-efficient techniques may be able to minimize the volume, velocity and toxicity of these material flows, but they cannot alter its linear progression ‘from cradle to grave’. While some materials are recycled, this recycling is difficult and brings added costs. The result of such recycling is actually downcycling: a downgrade in material quality which limits its future usability. We need an ‘eco-effective’ perspective to replace this limited and limiting agenda. In eco-effective industrial systems, the material intensity per service unit or ‘waste’ produced by each individual element is irrelevant as long as the materials entering the system are perpetually maintained as usable resources. For example, if the trimmings from the production of textile garments are composed in such a way that they become nutrients for ecological systems, then it doesn’t matter that they are not included in the saleable product. They are not ‘waste’. Even if the material intensity per service unit of the textile mill is astronomically high, it could still be highly eco-effective if its trimmings become productive resources for natural systems. The goal is not to minimize the cradle-to-grave flow of materials, but to generate cyclical cradle-to-cradle ‘metabolic cycles’ that enable materials to maintain their status as resources and accumulate intelligence over time.
Instead of downcycling this approach is all about upcycling. It doesn’t seek to eliminate waste or produce zero emissions. Instead it focuses on maintaining (or upgrading) resource quality and productivity through many cycles of use (and in doing so, it achieves ‘zero waste’ along the way). The difference between the two strategies of cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-cradle are very important. Strategies focused on achieving ‘zero waste’ do not create sustainable cradle-to-cradle cycles. But eco-efficient cradle-to-cradle cycles do achieve zero waste. How they achieve their goals is also different. ‘Zero waste’ cradle-to-grave strategies emphasize volume minimization, reduced consumption, design for repair and durability and design for recycling and reduced toxicity. On the other hand cradle-tocradle strategies design products and industrial processes so that every single one of their ‘outputs’ becomes a nutrient for another system – designed to be re-used – to create a perpetual cycle where resources are either maintained or ‘upcycled’.”
The passage is from ICR (2007) 7:152–156 – DOI 10.1007/s12146-007-0020-2 – © ICR 2007 Published online: 28 November 2007.