The role of recycling in the circular economy

Circular Economy

The circular economy is an economic and productive strategy whose objective is to reduce as much as possible the use of raw materials in production processes and thereby to minimize the generation of non-recyclable waste. It is, in short, a resource use system whose basic pillar is the so-called “four R’s”: reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.

In other words, the circular economy seeks to overcome the traditional production model, based on the use of large amounts of resources, by a viable and efficient alternative that minimizes the environmental impact. With this model of management of resources and waste, the circular economy establishes a circular cycle to avoid the waste of resources that occurs in the productive industry. By doing so, this economic model gives increasing importance to social and environmental benefits in the search for sustainability.

 

Linear model has expiration date

The linear system of production and resource management in which much of the productive fabric has been based has forested short-term mass consumption and unfortunately contributed to resource depletion. This linear and majority model has been based on producing, using and throwing away. If we add to this the great advances and technological innovations that have reduced the useful life of electrical and electronic equipment by advancing it´s time lag, it´s logical to think about the need for a more sustainable system that facilities the ability to reuse or recycle consumer and industrial goods.

The circular economy is, according to the European Union, the model in which “the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and in which waste generation is kept to minimum”. In this regard, the European Commission adopted in 2015 an action plan to help accelerate Europe´s transition to a circular economy, boost global competitiveness, promote sustainable economic growth and create new jobs.

 

Recycling is the basis of the circular economy

To help mitigate the effects of climate change, to the role of recycling in the circular economy model is extremely important. Thanks to recycling processes, the previous linear model gives way to an endless circle based on production, use and recycling. Those wastes recovered through recycling are reintroduced into the production system itself, promoting a more balanced, sustainable economic development compatible with the care of the care of the environment.

In Spain, the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) has created the Circular Economy Sub-Directorate, formerly known simply as Residues, whose main objective is the transfer of a linear model to a circular one.

The principles of the circular economy

The circular economy is based on the enhancement of use over consumption, that is, and with reference to the four “R´s”, in the reuse of goods and facilitating their repair and recycling over and above consumption (reduction). The principles governing this new production system are as follows:

  • Protection of the environment through an eco-design approach, taking into account environmental impacts throughout the life of a product and its recycling.
  • Optimisation of resources, with the understanding that waste, after recycling, can become a resource.
  • Reintroduction of products in the economic circuit that have fulfilled their own cycle of use.
  • Promotion of the repair of damaged products to avoid new linear production cycles.
  • Use of renewable energy sources in the production systems of goods and services.
  • Introduction of the economy of functionality, promoting use over possession.
  • Promotion of recycling for the re-use of certain waste.

 

Beyond the Recycling Process

Although recycling is considered the cornerstone of the circular model, experts in the field understand that the concept of the circular economy is much broader, because it covers the entire production cycle taking into account the above principles such as the efficient use of energy and the minimisation of environmental risks. That is why some conservationists even talk about the nine R´. These are: rethink, redesign, remanufacture, repair, redistribute, reduce, reuse, recycle and recover energy.

As the Ellen McArthur foundation has pointed out, the circular economy model must also consider the following characteristics:

  • An eco-design that minimises pollution and waste generation during the production process.
  • Prolonged use of the product life cycle through the promotion of repair above replacement.
  • Companies must show their commitment to the environment through actions and decisions that help reduce the ecological impact.

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