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Have we hit the limits of the circular economy?

“Eco-design should be favoured over recycling”

Lucie Domingo, teacher-researcher in eco-design at UniLaSalle Rennes | École des métiers de l'environnement
On May 10th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Lucie Domingo
teacher-researcher in eco-design at UniLaSalle Rennes | École des métiers de l'environnement
Key takeaways
  • The recycling of everyday products has virtually no effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The logistics involved in transporting and manufacturing recycled products can sometimes be even more harmful than burning these plastics locally.
  • Over the past 10 years, European countries’ domestic material consumption has averaged around 13 tonnes per capita, with no significant overall decrease.
  • Rather than focusing on the depletion of resources, we need to rethink the use of products, their maintenance, transport, and utility.
  • For example, electric hoovers must meet eco-design requirements such as energy consumption during use or durability.

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…

Marina Julienne

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