A low-carbon and low-waste Circular Economy

During the Re-think Circular Economy Forum held in Taranto last here, we had the honour to have as guest Walter Stahel, father of the Circular Economy and founder of The Life-Product Institute in Geneva, who began his speech giving a panoramic view of the opportunities of a low-waste, low-carbon circular industrial economy. 

Circular Industrial Economy (EIC) Concept

Circular Industrial Economy (CIE) is about stocks, not flows, he started, and it’s about managing, maintaining the value and the utility of natural capital, human capital, cultural capital, manufactured capital. The origins of circularity are several: in nature, in infrastructure designed for long-term use, in good husbandry in societies of poverty and scarcity. The take-away from early sustainability and Circular Economy is that it comes from people caring for their belongings – what they have – and as there is no waste in nature, it simply means that all waste is man-made. 

Circular Economy like a “bathtub”

Walter explained that, looking at the economy as a whole, it is like a bath-tub economy, where you have inflows and outflows, but the thing we are most interested in is quality and quantity of stock of water in the tub. This is largely unknown today. So, a bath-tub view of a mature circular economy is one loop, with a main era of “R”, reuse, refill, repair, remanufacture and an era of “D”, de-linking materials to recover molecules as-pure-as-new from used resources.

The “R” era and its impact

The era of “R” is about essential services. Production is about productive labour and that’s why economists usually ignore the era of “R” because it’s not productive labour. The era of “R” of the Circular Industrial Economy is about local SMEs and innovation to extend the service-life of objects. And who takes the decisions in the era of “R”? It’s the owner-user in control of his/her belongings.  

The Turning Point of 1946: The “D” Era

Then, according to Walter, a first watershed happened 1946 when science decoupled man from nature and the era of “D” is born. The Anthropocene started with the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and since then science has given us energy, chemistry, metallurgy, much more powerful than anything nature can offer us. But society overlooked producer liability resulting from this de-coupling from Nature. Innovation in the era of “D” is about research and researchers, global innovation, competitiveness, economics, whereas innovation in the era of “R” is local. 

Concrete examples and challenges in achieving a low-carbon and low-waste Circular Economy

Afterwards Walter made an example, showing a picture of an U.S. cemetery of windmill blades, cut in 3. Windmills, even though they produce renewable energy are definitely not a sustainable technology and not part of the circular industrial economy if it’s not possible to recover the blades’ materials at the end of their life. There are circular chemistry examples which exist today, such as de-polymerisation of different plastics and a lot is under research. 

3 reasons for change towards a low- carbon and low-waste Circular Economy

While presenting, Walter gave 3 reasons for change: improve the material efficiency, harvest societal benefits like more jobs and less CO2 emissions, restrain ‘anthropogenic mass’. If we want to retain the material value of resources we have to improve today’s recycling by implementing more CIE. If we want to reduce CO2 emissions, then the shift to a CIE allows us to reduce them by 66%. Again, people are in charge of the planet and we have to give nature as much room as it needs which we are not doing at the moment; we are taking over the planet.

Building a Circular Economy: 4 opportunities

The other question Walter asked is how to change in order to build a low-carbon low-waste Circular Industrial Economy. We have 4 opportunities and the most important one is the need for innovation into circular sciences and into net zero carbon energy because if we don’t have green energy we will never have net zero products.

Necessary innovations in circular sciences and energy for low-carbon and low-waste

New research topics are all multidisciplinary, in systems, materials, molecules, components, business models.  For instance, social systems innovation means we have to make sharing solutions more attractive than they are today. Systems innovation means inventing sufficiency systems, for example an electric dumper that can go up and down the mountain without ever recharging the batteries not producing efficient products. And, finally, innovation in circular energy has a very wide spectrum. Some of the dominating innovations are green hydrogen, ammonia (NASA’s X-15), iron powder (NL), geothermal CHP. However, according to Walter, these new circular energy systems have started at universities but not yet in industries. 

Innovative developments in Chemistry and Circular Metallurgy

Innovation in Circular Chemistry has started to develop new polymers with low energy and water consumption that are 100% recoverable as pure monomers that can be re-used (even in the presence of additives) to recreate the same polymer. Innovation in Circular Metallurgy includes the era of “R” and era of “D”. Circular metallurgy includes remanufacturing components, reusing steel beams; re-refining tailings and urban ores, De-alloying alloys.

Advances in Circular Bio-chemistry

Innovation in Circular Bio-chemistry is between science and nature. Some examples are: technology to convert end-of-life tires into liquid hydrocarbons and carbon black, technique of engineered microbial communities to digest PET and polyurethane into Bio-PU molecules, mutant bacterial enzymes to reduce bottles to chemical building blocks that are used to make new bottles, engineered enzymes to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its constituent monomers. Still, many opportunities haven’t been exploited yet. 

The importance of green public procurement and innovation for a low-carbon and low-waste Circular Economy

Finally, the last topic covered by Walter was innovation in public green procurement. He stated that if public procurement buys performance instead of products, it drives innovation, such as “Le pont de Millau” which used a completely new technology and commercial approach, or “Space X” which was initiated by NASA when it decided it would no longer buy hardware – rockets – but it would only buy space transport services. 

Watch the speech below or consult the final report to know more. 

Francesco Castellano

Francesco Castellano holds a Master degree in Business Administration, and he has gathered almost twenty years of experience in research, finance, consulting, and business management. During this time, he was engaged in different types of projects as a consultant at Bain & Company, launched Uber operations in Turin, and worked in the FP&A department at General Electric.Lately, he founded To... Read more

Francesco Castellano holds a Master degree in Business Administration, and he has gathered almost twenty years of experience in research, finance, consulting, and business management. During this time, he was engaged in different types of projects as a consultant at Bain & Company, launched Uber operations in Turin, and worked in the FP&A department at General Electric.

Lately, he founded Tondo, a cluster of organizations focusing on spreading Circular Economy approaches and concepts, and supporting companies in the transition to a clean and circular future. Francesco is also the ideator and coordinator of the Re-think Circular Economy Forum, a format of events organized in many different locations in Italy showcasing the most relevant Circular Economy solutions.

Francesco has been a guest speaker at different universities and events, like Federico II University, Bocconi University, LIUC - Cattaneo University, Pavia University, Padua University, Catholic University, IPE Business School, 24ORE Business School, Campus Party, Torino Stratosferica, Visionary Days.

Francesco is passionate about Circular Economy, Cleantech Innovations, Venture Building and Entrepreneurship.