Aufmacher-Aufmacher studio
2024-04-01 VDE dialog

Circular Economy: Still much to do!

Producing and consuming in a sustainable way is no longer an exotic concept. Today's politicians and consumers are pushing for more recycling than is being done at present. So far, however, this has only been accomplished with a small proportion of materials. In order to establish and eventually close material cycles, familiar processes need to be turned on their head.

By Manuel Heckel

The scrapyard can be seen as a starting point for new life. It's a place where old cars are already dismantled into individual parts and separated as much as possible according to their different materials. Unfortunately, these materials do not find their way back into vehicle production – at least not yet. The Car2Car research project, which involves the Technical University of Munich, the car manufacturer BMW and steel manufacturers such as Aurubis and Thyssen-Krupp, wants to find out whether bits of aluminum, steel, glass, copper and plastic can be filtered out and sorted by type for reuse in car manufacturing. The aim is to create a type of endless cycle for car bodies and the like. 

The industry is expecting a number of benefits from this ambitious project. Firstly, it will enable suppliers and manufacturers to secure their access to important materials they would otherwise have to procure through complex and vulnerable channels. In addition, eliminating the need to tap into fresh raw materials for every new vehicle will benefit the environment. “A stronger circular economy that conserves and recycles resources is an important step toward climate neutrality, and it secures supply chains at the same time,” said Michael Kellner, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and a member of the Green Party, at the launch of the Car2Car project in spring 2023.

EU hoping to decouple economic growth from resource consumption

It's not just in vehicle manufacturing that companies are working harder and harder to extend the useful life of various materials. When one component breaks, that shouldn't mean having to throw the entire product away. And when an item is discarded, its individual parts should continue to be used. Ideally, this turns one-way streets – meaning from production to the waste incineration plant – into closed cycles. However, this is still the exception. In the EU, less than twelve percent of used materials are currently reused; Germany is only just above that average. The EU has therefore set an ambitious goal: By 2030, 23.4 percent of the materials processed within its borders should consist of secondary raw materials.

A mammoth task for politics and society alike, as processes that have taken shape over decades will have to change. “The topic is so huge that no one can manage it in their own individual space,” says Carsten Gerhardt. As managing director of the Circular Valley initiative, he is bringing together corporations, SMEs and start-ups and creating networks with the realm of politics. Meanwhile, the terms in this field are shifting. For a long time, “recycling” covered a whole host of aspects. The buzzword “circular economy” also refers to the recovery of materials, but includes avoiding and reusing waste, as well.

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This holistic vision is becoming increasingly important. It focuses on individual parts and their life cycles – from raw material extraction through design and production and on to the next recycling stage. While the boundaries between these terms are often blurred in practice, the direction is clear: “Today's product is tomorrow’s raw material,” as DKE puts it.

This topic also continues to gain significance. Firstly, companies are increasingly interested in securing new ways to access urgently needed raw materials. Secondly, consumers are demanding more from companies regarding their commitment to sustainability. And thirdly, politicians are ensuring that the economy has to focus more intensively on closed cycles. The EU defines the circular economy as the goal of decoupling economic growth from the use of resources – in other words, that increasing economic output should not entail greater resource consumption. It has established this as a key pillar of the Green Deal, which aims to ensure that the EU achieves climate neutrality by 2050.

However, there are a great many milestones on the path to this major objective. The Circular Economy Action Plan alone, which was adopted by the EU Commission in 2020, comprises 35 individual measures. They include the revised Ecodesign Regulation (ESPR), which could come into force this summer and would define how long certain product groups must last, how much recyclable material they must contain and the CO2 footprint they are allowed to have. For product groups such as furniture, textiles or iron components, it will be necessary to prove where source materials come from and how many recycled materials are used. The right to repair is also likely to have a significant impact on consumers. In the future, the EU plans to enable consumers to insist that things like vacuum cleaners, washing machines or smartphones be repaired if they are defective – even beyond the statutory warranty. The European Parliament hopes that this step will lead to massive ecological benefits. At present, EU calculations indicate that 265 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions and 35 million tons of waste are generated every year because repairable appliances have to be thrown away. So far, it has mainly been volunteer initiatives that have been working to combat this. It may take several years before repair cycles become established. None of this will be possible in the short term, as Verena Dvorak, head of customer service at the Euronics retail chain, stated in a recent interview with the magazine WirtschaftsWoche. “It's not just a case of flicking a switch and suddenly being able to repair every washing machine,” she points out. However, the pressure on manufacturers is increasing slowly but steadily: “Regulation can be a powerful weapon in advancing the circular economy,” adds Carsten Gerhardt.

Grafische Darstellung von Aspekten der Kreislaufwirtschaft

Eine konsequente Kreislaufwirtschaft setzt beim Produktdesign an. Recycelt werden soll erst, wen die Wiederverwendung nicht klappt.

| STOCK.ABDOBE.COM/m.malinika

Taking products apart just as well as they are put together

The major challenge is that the more closed cycles become, the more steps they comprise and the more complex implementing them gets. This is because every single stage in the life cycle of products has to be examined. Even the recycling at the very end poses challenges, as the Car2Car project shows. When electric cars are dismantled, for example, some of the copper quickly gets mixed into the steel, making it impossible to reuse. Researchers and industry partners are now working on using new robots or AI analysis to increase material purity. Other sectors are facing similar challenges: “We're very good at carefully putting products together,” says Gerhardt. “Now it's a matter of being just as meticulous about taking them apart again.”

There are also economic questions: how much effort is currently involved in recycling? And how will the calculation change in the future if new requirements or additional levies are imposed? After all, whatever the ecological efforts, the models also need to work economically in order to be successful. According to the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, people need to understand “that the 100-percent recovery of the raw materials contained in waste is neither technically possible nor economically and ecologically sensible”.

In an economic world in which most steps are distributed among highly specialized partners, calculations and plans have to be remade on a regular basis. In the future, for example, Digital Product Passports are to document the materials and properties of individual products [see article on page 27]. Without this information, transparency is lost by the time a product changes hands twice. The path to the circular economy therefore requires a rethink in all areas – including in development: “The ideal approach is to design products in a way that generates little waste right from the outset,” says Tim Brückmann, environment and sustainability coordinator at DKE. “This requires a sufficient set of standards that harmonize products and processes from different companies and offer procedures for assessing their compatibility.”

DKE, DIN and VDI have been working together on a Circular Economy Standardization Roadmap since 2022. After all, standards are essential in translating ambitious political plans into practice. They are also a prerequisite of ensuring that product components can be exchanged and reused across manufacturers. For one everyday example, imagine if there was a standardized charging socket for all kinds of electronic devices. From December 2024, Germany will require new electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets to have a USB-C port. Politicians hope that this standardization will prevent electronic waste in the long term. Certain industries have also already started to exchange information along the value chain. In the automotive industry, the Catena-X project aims to pool data from suppliers of all sizes and manufacturers in order to not only simplify planning, but make material cycles possible in the first place.

Balancing ecological and economic concerns

For many companies, the first step toward the circular economy may involve more costs and effort. In particular, many companies first need to identify the issues they can tackle on their own initiative and where they will be accountable to politicians, suppliers or customers. In the long term, however, there will be opportunities to rethink partnerships and value chains.

Furthermore, the processes behind actual products are becoming increasingly fundamental in the age of closed cycles. Similar structures have already been created, for example, with the “dual system” in the disposal of packaging. Those who keep track of exactly which material is where, how it can be reused and by whom are at an advantage. They can also differentiate themselves more easily from the global competition and potentially gain cost advantages today. Meanwhile, complex production chains require particularly clever concepts: “It's not so easy to adapt this kind of knowledge,” asserts DKE expert Brückmann, who sees great potential in a circular economy “made in Germany”. “The circular economy can become an important label for the German economy.”

Manuel Heckel is a freelance business journalist from Cologne.

The Circular Economy Standardization Roadmap was presented by DKE, DIN and VDI at the beginning of 2023. The 222 standardization requirements the experts have identified indicate just how necessary the surrounding initiative is. At the same time, these legal specifications need to be aligned with practical realities.

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