Trainers or polo shirts made from recycled plastic bottles; waste burnt to heat an entire neighbourhood; bicycles designed from coffee capsules from which the aluminium has been recovered… All these projects, conceived within the framework of a “circular economy”, are supposed to allow the production of new wealth by taking less (exhaustible) resources from the planet. “However, this type of recycling has almost no effect on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change,” explains Lucie Domingo, a lecturer at the UniLaSalle engineering school in Rennes.
“The risk in focusing on the waste crisis and the depletion of mineral and fossil resources is to reduce the complexity of human systems to their production and disposal, without questioning the use of products, their maintenance, their transport, or their usefulness to society and the individuals who make them up,” she says. “By imagining numerous systems to recycle waste, or by designing new products that allow it to be re-used, we forget to question the very existence of this waste. By giving waste a market value, we develop technologies that often consume a lot of energy or produce emissions that are harmful to health and the environment.”
Recycling: real solution or new pollution?
An emblematic example is the Copenhagen incinerator, which came into service in 2017. It was supposed to be the largest and most efficient in the country. With more than 50% of its household waste burned to produce energy and heat, Denmark is the European country that incinerates the most waste. To the point of running out! Over the past five years, the country has increased its waste imports from the UK sixfold, partly to ensure the smooth running of the new incinerator. For decades, the UK has been paying Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden to dispose of its waste, a cheaper solution than implementing real waste management policies. As for the Danes, they are less and less encouraged to limit their waste, since the country is short of it!
Similarly for plastic, the logistics of transporting and manufacturing polo shirts or shoes from recycled plastic can be more environmentally damaging than burning these plastics locally. And the real challenge is to recover plastic waste from the oceans, not from the land. The same principle is at work with the anti-waste food app To good to go, which is virtuous in itself, as it allows individuals to give away perishable products that could end up in the bin. But the downside is that supermarkets are no longer careful to order only the quantities of food that are strictly necessary. “This is what we call the ‘lock-in’ effect,” explains Lucie Domingo. “Individuals or companies are blocked with solutions that are attractive in the short-term, but which have very little impact. This can be seen at the European level, as resource consumption is still not decreasing.”
Reducing material consumption: not so simple
Europe has developed indicators to measure domestic material consumption (DMC) at the level of each country, by aggregating domestic extraction and imports, minus exports. “Material productivity”, a ratio of gross domestic product (GDP) to material consumption, is used to measure society’s transition to a more resource-efficient organisation and to highlight the decoupling of economic growth from material consumption. Over the past 10 years, domestic material consumption in European countries has averaged around 13 tonnes per capita, with a high degree of variability between countries, but without any significant overall decline.
For the past 10 years, the domestic consumption of materials in European countries has averaged around 13 tonnes per capita.
“We can see that few resources can be circular, i.e. completely reintroduced into the production of new products,” continues Lucie Domingo. “More than 50% of our resources are used for food or energy, and therefore disappear forever; another significant part (45%) goes to the construction sector, which mobilises a huge quantity of materials over the long term: if the construction of buildings and infrastructures is well done, these materials will not be touched for decades!”
The benefits of eco-design
What are the solutions to limit our consumption of resources and energy? Lucie Domingo works on eco-design: by integrating the life cycle of a good into its development process, eco-design makes it possible to improve the environmental performance of this future product. The approach is complex and requires us to consider the behaviour of individuals and the influence of the context on the life cycle of the product.
For her thesis on a “Use-oriented eco-design methodology1”, the researcher studied refrigerators. Their manufacture has been standardised at international level, whereas the use made of them depends on the eating habits of individuals and the climate of the countries where they are installed. Households that prefer ready meals will need a fridge that maintains low temperatures, below 5 degrees. Those who eat mostly fresh food will be satisfied with a fridge that keeps food at between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius. And if fridges were rented instead of sold, it would be possible to change them according to one’s uses, which vary over the course of one’s life, the composition of one’s household, with or without young children or elderly people…
Is it unrealistic to integrate all these factors into the manufacture of new refrigerators? This case study shows firstly how important it is to think about the use of our products. Secondly, what may seem unrealistic today may turn out to be perfectly feasible tomorrow. “For example, it was thought for a long time that bulk sales would never appeal to consumers,” says the lecturer. “And indeed, market studies indicated that people would not want to take or would not think of taking a container every time they went shopping, that it would be too difficult for supermarkets to manage, etc. However, this type of sale has become widely accepted, with a benefit for the environment (less packaging) and an important economic benefit, especially for the poorest households, who can thus more easily buy what they need on a daily basis. As for the supermarkets, they have had to adapt to meet the demand…”.
In the realm of the circular economy, all options must be considered! And some examples of energy-efficient products are coming onto the market. For example, according to various European regulations, electric hoovers must now meet eco-design requirements that cover energy consumption during use, dust removal rate, dust emissions, noise, and durability. “It is important to rationalise the energy consumption of hoovers by using existing non-proprietary technologies that are cost-effective and can reduce the cumulative costs of purchasing and operating these products,” the regulation states. A major European household appliance group has reduced the average energy consumption of its canister hoovers by a factor of three over 10 years (2010–2020), without compromising on efficiency or noise levels. But this transformation was thought out well in advance, and required several years of testing and development…