Diana den Held (RSM): “Why ‘just’ recycling isn’t necessarily a Circular Economy”

If you recycle harmful ingredients, you will be making a harmful product. That seems obvious. Yet, not all companies that claim to be using the principles of Circular Economy, are actually doing so. It’s not just about using recycled materials, writes Diana den Held, Circular Economy strategist and lecturer at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), in this blog which she wrote during the Week of the Circular Economy.

In a Circular Economy (CE) we reuse resources at the end of use. It’s an alternative to the linear economy, in which raw materials are extracted from the earth, used and disposed when the user is ‘done’ with the product.

No single interpretation

What makes CE so attractive, is at the same time the biggest pitfall: it’s flexibility in interpretation. CE does not have one defined origin, and throughout the years many academics, policy makers and business professionals have given it their own swing.

It’s common in business to claim to work ‘according to CE principles’ but overemphasise financial benefits while simplifying environmental benefits, according to research by Martin Geissdoerfer et al. I’ve met business developers that announced they were working ‘Circular’ because they were implementing a pay-per-use sales model, instead of the usual buy-and-own model. They had never even looked at the product itself or its positive or negative impact on people or the environment.

Reuse, Reduce and Recycle

Many different ways of using materials are connected to Circular Economy today. In 2017, Dr Julian KirchherrDenise Reike and Prof. Marko Hekkert from Utrecht University found and analysed 114 definitions of CE, and discovered that it’s most frequently depicted as a combination of three Rs: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle.

A reason for focusing on these three Rs can be found by looking at semantics. Circular Economy and Linear Economy were deliberately set up as antonyms. Simply phrased: a linear economy converts raw materials into waste through production and use, a Circular Economy forms systems where resources are managed in cycles and waste is designed out of the equation, according to research by Prof. Alan MurrayKeith Skene and Prof. Kathryn Haynes.

People, planet and profit

I agree that CE strategies can indeed redefine the way people use materials. But we’re not there yet when we start reusing materials without asking questions.

A possible solution on how to deal with materials when ‘doing CE’ can be found in the final part of Kirchherr, Reike and Hekkert’s suggested definition of CE: “A Circular Economy describes an economic system (…) with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, which implies creating social, environmental and economic benefits for current and future generations.”

Bringing these three pillars of sustainable development (people, planet and profit) into the debate helps CE goal-setting and develop strategies that go further than a cheap deal in material purchasing.

Environmental and health criteria

One of the first things I teach my students and tell my clients is that if we want to recycle and reuse in a Circular Economy way, we need to know which materials we are reusing. Only from a financial perspective is it entirely valid to reuse any material, no matter if it’s healthy for the environment or anyone that comes into contact with it, such as the user, the producer and the recycler. Taking a CE perspective however, urges us to start using environmental and health criteria that I’d like to illustrate with a few simple questions:

  • Does it make sense to reuse a material that is known to increase the chances of children developing asthma, for example when making carpets out of recycled PVC, as Shu et al show in their research?
  • Does it make sense to reuse leather that is tanned with a material that pollutes our ground water? Kanagaraj and Elango ask questions about the use of Chromium in the leather industry in their research.
  • Does it make sense to reuse an ingredient that is known to irritate our skin, like sodium lauryl sulphate, as Prof. Manigé Fartasch shows us?
  • Does it make sense to reuse a material that is associated with developing Alzheimer by using aluminium in textiles or cosmetics? A question we can ask when reading Prof. Stephen Bondy’s research on the use of Aluminum.

Obviously, the answer to all of the above is no.

I’ve developed a simple principle to help CE decision-making on material use: ‘crap in = crap out’. Because if you recycle harmful ingredients, you will be making a harmful product, no matter how hard you try to ‘recycle’ or help to reduce the mining of a material. This may generate a fantastic turnover. But it doesn’t make it Circular.

Do you want to go Circular? You now know: when offered to reuse a material, start by asking which ingredients are in there.

Diana den Held is lecturer in Circular Economy at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM)

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