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Design for Recycling: The Secret to Growing a Circular Economy

The rise in commodity prices is giving renewed urgency to the concept of a circular economy — and the need for businesses to take recycling requirements into account in their product manufacture.

BRINK spoke to Barbara Reck, Senior Research Scientist at the Yale School of the Environment and node lead Systems Analysis & Integration at The REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership established by the U.S. Department of Energy to bring together business, trade association and academics to accelerate the U.S.’s transition to a circular economy.

This is second article in a series on the state of business related to the Sustainable Development Goals, in anticipation of the COP26 Conference in November. The first piece ran in February 2021.

BRINK: What is stopping us from adopting a circular economy more widely?

RECK: Broadly speaking, we don’t have enough recycled materials of acceptable quality to no longer need primary material production. There are several reasons for this — a chief being that not enough materials are collected for recycling in the first place. 

The result is that even if recyclers were to do a perfect job in separating the recyclables, our overall recycling rate would still be low because we started with an unnecessarily low baseline. So, the recycling industry needs to do better at the collection stage. 

Recycling Rates Can Be Higher

Another challenge is that most household wastes in the U.S. are collected single-stream, so all recyclables are collected in the same bin. While this is convenient for collectors, it makes the separation of materials much more difficult. For example, broken glass is hard to remove from mixed paper, lowering the quality and usefulness of the recycled paper. Also, not all recyclables have good end use markets. For example, of the seven major plastic types, only two have good markets while the others get downcycled at best.

Recycling focuses on relatively few materials, much fewer than the amount of materials found in products. If you look at metals, there is not just one steel or one aluminum but hundreds, if not thousands, of different alloy grades that differ among one another in their chemical composition. 

Yet, at the end of life, the recycling industry recycles, at best, several dozen of these. Instead of thousands of different alloy grades, less than a hundred are being collected and processed separately — the rest are downcycled to a few common grades. 

This matters since you not only lose specialty metals but also the energy that went into producing them. The challenges in recycling are economies of scale and the right separation technologies.

More Communication Needed Between Designers and Recyclers

And finally, there is the problem of product design. Electronics are a good example of the product design challenges recyclers often face. 

Electronics are full of valuable materials, including precious metals. The best way to recover the materials is through product disassembly, so components can be kept separately. But when your phone is welded instead of screwed together, that’s very difficult. 

There needs to be more communication between designers and recycling, so that the designers know what kind of technology is available and what the needs of recycling are. That way they would be able to take more responsibility. Product design with recycling in mind is something that would go a long way.

Adding end of life management to the key design criteria, such as performance and costs, would be really helpful. Design for disassembly or design for recycling would make a big difference.

There is no perfect singular way to a circular economy: You need to look at design, collection, separation efficiencies and recycling efficiencies.

BRINK: Is there any policy initiative that could be used by governments to encourage that? 

RECK: A vehicle that does exactly that is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This is the idea that producers have to take back their products at the end of life for recycling, and therefore, have a higher incentive to make products recyclable in the first place. 

Price is another powerful incentive: when the materials themselves are so valuable that material recovery pays for itself — for metals, plastics and paper. With higher commodity prices everybody tries to be as efficient as possible, minimizing yield losses, and maximizing collection rates.

Is the Urban Mining of Landfills Viable?

BRINK: The concept of ‘urban mining’ seems to be becoming more fashionable. Is that a viable sector or industry in your view?

RECK: Urban mining typically refers to the recovery of valuable materials from discarded products that can be found in population-rich areas. For example, every smartphone contains some gold. Though the amount of gold per phone is small, the fact that we have millions of phones in use makes a stack of old phones look like a valuable gold mine. 

The problem, however, is both accessibility and material mixing. Existing material separation technologies have been developed for primary ores, but not for urban mines. So though the opportunity sounds promising, there is still a long way to make it happen.  

There is no perfect singular way to a circular economy. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. You need to look at design, collection, separation efficiencies and recycling efficiencies. But urban mining definitely plays an important role with its focus on better collection rates.

Remanufacturing Is Preferable to Recycling

BRINK: What is the difference between remanufacturing and recycling? 

RECK: In recycling, a discarded product is processed in a recycling facility for material recovery. For example, a car gets shredded and then the shredder fraction gets separated into steel, aluminum and copper, which are all recycled. It is no longer a car.

In contrast, in remanufacturing, you would take a car and repair or replace all components until the car is basically as good as new. Ideally, you would leapfrog much of the manufacturing process since you can skip the recycling and often energy-intensive material production. 

From a circular economy perspective, remanufacturing is high on the list, just after lifetime extension and reuse and before recycling. Yet to date, there are only a few applications for which remanufacturing makes economic sense and is widely employed, large machinery is one such example.

BRINK: If you were to look at the arc of the circular economy, where would you say we are in the West?  

RECK: I think we are, at best, somewhere in the early middle of a circular economy. It depends on the materials. More valuable materials, such as metals, are managed in a much more circular fashion than plastics. 

What we have to keep in mind is that the concept of a circular economy is not to be taken literally, rather it’s a vision that helps us set ambitious targets. Its limits become evident for metals with their long product lifetimes of several decades. The supply from 20 years ago wouldn’t be enough to meet today’s demand, even if we had a perfect recycling rate. 

In terms of supply and demand balance, materials used in products with shorter lifetimes have more potential for circularity. Yet, the reality for plastics packaging is rather discouraging with recycling rates of less than 10%. 

If you could set up a well-established recycling infrastructure for short-lived materials, you have the potential to get to a more circular economy very quickly.

Barbara Reck

Senior Research Scientist at Yale University and REMADE Institute

Dr. Reck is node lead of systems analysis & integration at The REMADE Institute and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment where she studies the sustainability of material use in society. Prior to her research in industrial ecology she worked as manager for environmental affairs at Lufthansa German Airlines.

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