Sustainability consultant Alan Best explains the concept of the circular economy and its ‘radically alternative vision’ to the traditional way we design, manufacture and supply products:
THE buzz phrase around sustainability these days is the ‘circular economy’ and many of our major flooring manufacturers and their supply chains are beginning to sign up to the concepts involved.
The circular economy recognises that the traditional way we design, manufacture and supply products has a very limited future and promotes a radically alternative vision.
The circular economy model featured prominently at the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations conference on sustainable development which was attended by around 100 leading academic organisations from around the world. Organisations in the UK such as the highly regarded Ellen MacArthur Foundation are actively promoting education and innovation related to circular economy principles.
The way we have traditionally worked may be described as a linear model as it has only three stages. We take raw materials, make products and then throw them away and continuously repeat the process. However this way of doing things relies on the ready availability of a raw materials and energy which are beginning to run out.
The circular economy envisions a new industrial revolution in which we use, recover and reuse raw materials continuously. In addition the model looks for a complete shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy and for the elimination of the use of toxic chemicals.
If necessity is the mother of invention then mother is now standing at the front door calling us in to do our homework. The concept goes beyond industrial processes and into areas such as corporate social responsibility which broadens our horizons beyond the factory gate to consider the full implications of what we do on the world’s populations and eco systems.
The circular economy sees the customer as a user of products rather than consumers. This subtle shift in definition requires product design which builds end of life recovery and upcycling to new products into the standard model as opposed to end of life disposal.
This is not about more efficient manufacturing processes which use less raw materials and consume less energy – which is business as usual – but rather about basing our industrial model on nature’s systems which conserve, restore and replenish in continuous cycles.
Hence we must use rather than consume the collection of raw materials that are made into products. This means that once products have come to the end of their useful life they must be designed for disassembly and re-use and the logistics and technical processes must be in place to upcycle them.
As economies around the world emerge slowly from global recession there are vast countries such as India and Brazil which are becoming richer and are hungry for consumer goods. The world’s growth in population and affluence adds to the existing pressures on key resources such as water and wood as well as energy sources.
We can now forecast with a fair degree of accuracy how consumer demand will develop and, if we fail to correct current consumption trends, how long will it be before things run out?
A fairly recent BBC Futures website article entitled ‘Global Stock Check’ gives summary of research into the projected timescales before the exhaustion of some vital resources and forecasts other critical events that are facing the planet if things continue as they are. www.bbc.com/future/story/20120618-global-resources-stock-check
These vital resources are presented on the left. The sources of this research are detailed in the BBC article.
The industry is very price driven and it is difficult to find the major budget outlays that are required to redesign products and introduce processes for perpetual recycling as is envisaged in the circular economy model.
Collaborations among fierce competitors may be called for as has been the case in industries such as car manufacture for some time. Some companies have made significant progress towards the circular economy model through the development of Cradle to Cradle certified products and others by approaches involving recovery systems which e.g. divert post-consumer nylon yarns to chemical recovery plants for the creation of new yarns.
Some in the resilient flooring field have developed methods for incorporating post-consumer PVC flooring into new flooring products. This is true upcycling as opposed to downcyling which is really just an extension of the linear model.
However a great many carpet and resilient flooring products cannot be upcycled either due to the difficulty in breaking them down into reusable raw materials, or due to technical problems with the recycled material including some of the undesirable or unknown chemical content of older products.
There are a number of innovations which are looking to replace petrochemicals based materials with bio materials which have the potential to be constantly replenished.
These bio materials are not without their own problems and may require intensive farming methods which can be environmentally damaging and also may require dwindling water resources.
Another potential use for bio materials is through the use of starch based latex adhesives which have the potential to provide reversible bonds which may be recovered and used again from post-consumer flooring products. The use of latex adhesives are a particular problem for carpet recycling projects as, once they set, they become solid and trap pile and backing material within the latex layers.
There is at least one flooring company who hold the patent on a reversible bio based latex and this will surely have a huge potential in the years to come. Some older bio based flooring materials such as linoleum and rubber are making a comeback or are being developed for new uses with some considerable success.
The picture regarding energy usage by the flooring industry is encouraging and significant reductions are being achieved largely driven by cost savings incentives.
However more and more companies are adopting renewable energy as part of their supply either directly, by e.g. constructing solar power or waste to energy plants, or by subscribing to energy suppliers who have a growing mix of renewable energy in their grid make up.
The circular economy model looks however for this move to renewables to be 100% complete before the fossil fuels run out around 40 years from now which is in reality just around the corner.
The management of toxic chemicals stipulated under the circular economy is being actively led by legislation such as the REACH regulations in Europe. Others around the world are following with similar legislation of their own and a number of NGO’s are driving the subject deep into the heart of industry.
A number of leading flooring companies are collaborating as members of groups such as BiZNGO in the USA and Chemsec NGO Business Group in Europe.
These challenges are among the biggest the industry has ever faced and calls for proactive innovation rather than a mere response to legislation or short term financial pressures.
The financial rewards for those achieving the circular economy model are said to run into trillions. The benefits to the planet are probably beyond measure and so much waste and pollution would be eliminated.
In my view those who successfully innovate in the flooring industry will reap considerable rewards and can look forward to a very long term future. Those who do not are unlikely to prosper for much longer. This is surely a time for long term thinking despite the continuing economic hardships that we face.
n Alan Best, a sustainability consultant, is chair of the Flooring Sustainability Partnership, which he attends on behalf of Shaw Industries Group. He works with a number of construction related industries specialising in environmental certification, substitution of hazardous chemicals and waste reduction. Alan is co-author of the Croner ‘Essential Guide to REACH’. He also sits on a number of international bodies where he represents Shaw Industries Group.
This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at www.contractflooringjournal.co.uk.