The latest episode of the Zero Downtime podcast has landed and brought the issue of the circular economy crashing back to the forefront of our minds.
If you went to school in the 90s or 00s, then the circular economy was drilled into you from a very young age with the old ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ moniker - providing zero excuses for ignoring the labels on the office kitchen bins.
But even if this wasn’t a cornerstone of your education, the circular economy is widely known and discussed across a variety of industries, and it is something that we need to take seriously.
We need to ‘close the loop’, as it were.
“Carbon is a metric in the same way that finance is a metric.” Astrid Wynne Rogers is the sustainability lead at TechBuyer and discusses the circular economy without any nonsense in our latest podcast episode.
“You can reduce your carbon footprint to zero, but at the same time make the materials run out in society, and that seems to be what's happening now.
“With our obsession with carbon at the moment, we're discounting the fact that to get us to net zero, we're going to have a lot of finite materials being used in our renewable energy production that are potentially going to run out within decades.”
There is little to no consideration of what this will mean for sustainability in terms of ‘longevity’.
The Economist said that copper doubled in price before the situation in Ukraine, and lithium is experiencing a similar spike in prices. Already, there are more precious metals in ICT than there are in the ground. We might be attempting to create new renewable solutions, but are we running out of resources in the process?
“These are not abstract issues. People think of materials being something that's outside of our day-to-day lives. But when you have a restricted supply of materials in society, it tends to have very real social results. It tends to lead to conflict, deprivation, and hunger.
“These are the visions of the dystopian future that you see in novels, and we can potentially see these impacts in real life.
“You have to look at it as an entire loop. As is suggested by the circular economy: it's an entire system. Just because I put my materials in a container that is then recycled, does not mean that you get 100 percent of those materials back out of that pile.”
So, what is the reality of recycling? That it is more complicated than the three Rs suggested (shocker, I know).
“Conventional recycling technologies tend to smash things to pieces and then melt them down. And you can get more evolved versions of that that are on the market at the moment, which pull apart components, giving you a better guess of which materials you're trying to recover, which will give you a melting temperature. But it's still largely guesswork, and quite crude.”
A good example of this complexity of the process can be found in recycling steel.
“We know that steel's quite good for recycling. People say that there's about 20 to 25 percent of recycled steel in every piece of steel production, which is fine. But then people from the construction industry say well, there are natural standards that relate to this. Some people don't feel comfortable using entirely recycled steel in their buildings, and other people in the buildings industry are saying there's not enough scrap steel to have 100 percent recycled steel.”
In summation, we can come to the conclusion that there are many gaps in the circular economy loop as of now. We must look to the future, and find the missing links.