Session 1

Sustainable Development and the Circular Economy

The purpose of Session 1 was to establish the vocabulary and conceptual framework necessary for understanding the circular economy. The session was designed to provide the foundation for the remainder of the workshop and focused on the fundamentals of the circular economy, particularly as it relates to raw materials extraction and energy use.

Maja Johannessen from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation compared and contrasted the conventional linear economy (make, use, dispose) to the circular economy, which can be broken down into biological and technical cycles. The linear economy is based on extracting raw materials (e.g., minerals, energy, and water) to manufacture products that are eventually discarded at the end of their service life. This model relies heavily on non-renewable virgin materials and produces high levels of waste, including “structural waste” (e.g., cars are parked 92% of the time; 31% of food is wasted; the average office is unused 50-65% of time). The circular economy decouples economic growth from this make, use, dispose economy and finds ways to create greater value from natural resources by increasing the service life of these resources through recycling, repurposing and regenerating and by adopting new “ownership” models. This approach requires innovation, novel materials and products or components that are designed specifically for serviceability and reuse. Drivers for the Circular Economy are: 1. Economic losses and structural waste; 2. Price risks; 3. Supply risks; 4. regulatory trends; and 5. Advances in technology. The Circular Economy is “restorative by intent and design.”

Florian Kongoli from Flogen discussed the important role that engineers and scientists play in the circular economy. He discussed the need for novel engineering and technological solutions to develop new methods, control technologies, and automation. Sustainability needs to be tackled at a global scale and there must be cooperation between fields of science and engineering.

Diran Apelian from Wooster Polytechnical Institute focused the circular economy discussion around raw materials inputs and what is required to successfully transition to the Circular Economy. He posed a series of central questions including “Who owns the ore?” and “Can wastes be resources?” He also pointed out that the circular economy is common sense but we need to have a sustainable business model that supports it. Nature is sustainable because it is resilient and functions as a closed loop system with no waste. It uses only a few elements (C, N, O, H) and balances equilibrium against growth. Other considerations for a successful transition are the need for policies that promote cross-sector collaboration, a favorable investment climate, and policies to attain scale.

Carol Russell concluded the session by bringing in a global perspective. She discussed the economy-wide flow of materials through processing, consumption, to outputs. Stocks tie up a lot of resources not being utilized for a purpose (similar to parked cars). This is a global challenge and global co-operation is needed. The UN SDGs are an example of a global-scale framework for cooperation.