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Smarter products and services are the key to a resource-efficient circular economy
A new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) stresses that ‘circular’ business models cannot rely on smarter product design alone, but will also require the development of related support services and recycling infrastructure.
Launched at the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki, the EEA report ‘Circular by design— products in the circular economy,’ looks specifically at what drives product design and how emerging production and consumption trends can enhance or hamper more circular — and more efficient material use.
Currently, product design is based on the linear ‘make-use-dispose’ model of production, which is heavily dependent on relatively cheap and abundant raw materials and energy. This has led to growing environmental problems including increased waste, carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.
In this context, resource efficiency and reducing waste by improving the ability to reuse, repair, or recycle products are key. The EEA report stresses that improving the ability to reuse and refurbish goods can offer significant environmental and economic benefits by encouraging, for example, innovations in the design of less environmentally harmful products and product-based services.
New technologies, such as 3D printing, can reduce the number of materials used in a product and can be used to print spare parts, stimulating the repair of products. However, such developments can also be a barrier for recycling if the technology leads to complex mixtures of different materials being integrated into one product.
The transition towards a circular economy requires fundamental changes to production and consumption systems, going well beyond resource efficiency and recycling waste.
Designing products in a smarter way, extending their useful lives and changing the role of such products within the system will be crucial to the achievement of a circular economy. Reuse, repair, redistribution, remanufacture and refurbishment have so far received less attention than waste-related issues, and related strategies are less mature. Nonetheless, they potentially offer significant environmental and economic benefits by encouraging, for example, innovations in the design of less environmentally harmful products.
Modular design of buildings
The building sector is one of the most resource consuming sectors in EU. Looking at the whole life cycle of a building, from the extraction of materials, the manufacturing of construction products, construction, use and maintenance, buildings in the EU amount for about:
Modular design is already widely applied in the construction sector, where buildings are produced in modules at a factory and subsequently assembled on site. Modular construction contributes to circularity in several ways.
First, waste is more readily reduced in a controlled environment such as a factory, where practices such as recycling of materials, controlling inventory and protecting building materials are more easily implemented than on an open construction site that is more prone to external disturbance.
Modular construction typically involves less transport of materials and staff, contributing to fewer emissions (Kim, 2008). Moreover, modular buildings can be disassembled and the modules relocated or refurbished for reuse, reducing the demand for raw materials and minimising the amount of energy expended in creating a building to meet the new need.
The potential reusability of detachable components raises the resale value of building parts that can be replaced, recycled or moved according to need. However, this might be challenging due to the generally long lifetime of buildings, leading to the probability that modules will be outdated by the time they become available for reuse. Finally, modular buildings make the repair or modification of materials or parts possible without destroying buildings’ basic structure (Mora, 2007).
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can provide insights on the relative importance of the technical properties of a product, including its material content, in determining environmental impacts. For instance, although policymakers pay much attention to limiting the energy consumption of buildings during their use phase, in modern low-energy buildings the largest part of a building’s total environmental impact over its life cycle, including its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, relates to the materials used in its construction (OVAM, 2013). This emphasises the importance of lowering the impact of materials used, for instance by using reusable or recyclable building materials and building elements.
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