Embracing the circular economy means trading straight lines and dead ends in landfills for a true reduce-and-recycle mentality: one that lets far less material, energy and effort go to waste.

What Does a Circular Economy Look Like in the Manufacturing Industry?
What Does a Circular Economy Look Like in the Manufacturing Industry?

Emily Folk | Conservation Folks

The circular economy presents a stark alternative from business as usual in the manufacturing sector. Ever since humankind mastered the assembly line, we’ve been prioritizing productivity and economic growth over sustainability — using raw materials to make material goods, then disposing of those goods once they’re no longer useful.

Embracing the circular economy means trading these straight lines and dead ends in landfills for a true reduce-and-recycle mentality: one that lets far less material, energy and effort go to waste. Here are some of the forms the circular economy is taking, right now, throughout the manufacturing industry.


One Person’s Waste Is Someone Else’s Treasure

The city of Kalundborg, Denmark, is one of the earliest circular economy success stories. The economy there epitomizes the concept of “industrial symbiosis,” where the waste products from one company or industry become the raw material required by another.

In Kalundborg, a local gypsum manufacturer uses gas byproducts from an oil refinery — Denmark’s largest such facility — to produce drywall.

The city also has infrastructure in place to transport biological sludge and waste to farms in the outlying areas, reducing farmers’ dependence on synthetic additives and fertilizers and lowering the impact of existing waste collection and transportation methods.


More Deliberate and Longer-Lasting Product Designs

In 2016, the U.S. produced around 6.9 million tons of electronic waste, or about 42 pounds of trash per person. Apart from the obvious material waste, e-waste — like obsolete cellphones and broken appliances — also leaches mercury, lead and other toxic elements and compounds into the earth and its water sources.

Of course, it’s not just about unwanted substances. E-waste also contains valuables like gold and copper. Both are finite resources that companies would be better off reclaiming.

When it comes to designing products for longevity, companies have a mixed record. The interchangeable parts of bygone industrial revolutions are out of style, and proprietary designs are in. For instance, Microsoft brought the force of law against a laptop refurbisher because he ran afoul of the tech giant's licensing terms.

But repairing electronics and passing them on to new owners is very much what the circular economy is all about. It’s also about designing products that last a long time and are responsive to consumer needs over a longer period, rather than being immediately phased out for something new and different.

They’re not the only company doing this, but Philips provides a detailed look at how they’ve staked their future on the circular economy. They prioritize parts recovery and product refurbishment, and collect data on product performance and usage to ensure the next design iterations last longer and meet a wider range of consumer needs.

Philips says it generated 12% of its sales in 2018 from “circular products.” In other words, companies that adopt this model can keep unnecessary waste out of landfills and squeeze a healthy additional profit from products, even after they have already paid the original environmental cost.


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Generating Energy From Industrial Byproducts

An earlier example detailed how industrial byproducts can play a role in manufacturing other products. In some cases, symbiotic manufacturing and recycling programs can also facilitate the generation of clean energy. One company, called Cambrian Innovation, shows how.

Cambrian specializes in prefabricated and scalable “bioelectrically enhanced wastewater treatment plants.” As of February 2019, Cambrian’s nine U.S. plants had treated more than 79 million gallons of wastewater.

We don’t necessarily think of energy as a manufactured good, but it is nevertheless a product that requires production, refinement and distribution. In this case, the energy comes from electrically active microbes that clean public or private wastewater, while extruding biogas that can meet energy needs elsewhere.

The private sector gets most of the attention when the topic of the circular economy comes up. But this example reveals many opportunities to build more ecologically conscious public infrastructure that incorporates tight waste controls, lean manufacturing principles and the latest technologies.


Using Green Certifications to Close the Loop

Every passing year sees more ecological certifications crop up for manufacturers and builders to choose from. For example, well-established programs like Energy Star encourage the development and manufacture of electronics, appliances and climate control systems that work more efficiently, minimize waste and offer continued service across multiple owners.

Other programs, like Cradle to Cradle, help “close the loop” in manufacturing by offering certifications for products that incorporate post-consumer materials or that are intended for people to reuse or recycle one or more times. In a linear economy, manufacturers use virgin materials to manufacture products with short, single-user lifespans. “Closing the loop” means eliminating as much new product materialization as possible.

From structural components and building materials to home goods, children’s toys and product packaging, the program helps prove just how many product categories are ripe for inclusion in the circular economy.


A Closed-Loop Economy Benefits Us All

From a business perspective, the circular economy is a win because it encourages companies to seek financial savings even as they meet their users’ desires for cleaner, longer-lasting, less wasteful and better-performing products.

From an ecological perspective, it helps us keep more of our planet's finite materials where they belong and reduces manufacturing’s impact on the natural world. Whatever your vantage point, it’s clear that the circular economy is a positive development for all involved and promises even further environmental and cost savings in the future.


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The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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