THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY IS IRELAND'S LEADING BODY OF EXPERTS IN THE SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES

Michael Morris MRIA: Chemist

13 December 2021

Professor Morris suggests that the challenges and benefits of the circular economy represent a new industrial revolution.

M.A. Morris MRIA, professor of Surface and Interface Chemistry, School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin, and director of the AMBER Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, TCD

In manufacturing, material science and the general economy we face disruptive changes akin to those precipitated by the industrial revolution, when manufacturing moved from being a cottage to a factory industry. This led to rapid economic growth, urbanisation and consumerism. It drove ‘linear’ economies based on a take (extract resources), make (manufacture products), dispose (waste production) model, centred on ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ mass consumerism. It effectively disconnected the bulk of modern societies from resource use and waste production.

As we move into the twenty-first century this model is not sustainable. Mass manufacturing, built-in obsolescence, consumerism and the associated disconnections have led to environmental emergencies and caused damage to the world we live in. That we embrace new sustainable economic approaches that protect the planet for future generations is now accepted.

The solution to the current linear economy is conceptually facile: we need to decouple economic growth from resource extraction (be that minerals, petroleum or ‘renewable’ resources such as wood) and from waste production. This can be achieved by delivering materials, products, goods and services that can be used through many lifetimes (use cycles), such that their impacts are minimised. This is the circular economy. If conceptually simple, it is practically challenging, and it is difficult to imagine societies functioning where zero resource is used or zero waste produced. It is obvious, however, that materials and their manufacturing will undergo dramatic changes over the next 25 years if we are to meet ambitious climate and other goals.

Despite the incredible versatility, properties and performance of modern plastics, they have caused significant environmental impacts to air, land and ocean. By 2050, we are predicted to manufacture 500 million tonnes of plastic annually (around half of the global production of sugar cane, often quoted as an alternative source of chemicals and plastics) and are expected to contribute between 5% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. From the perspective of a materials chemist specialising in plastics and polymer coatings for many years, implementing a circular economy for plastics represents a very significant challenge, but one that must be met. This, and particularly how we can accelerate a circular plastics economy, is a focus of my research.

There is no accepted definition of the circular economy, but framing the issue helps define the challenges in implementing circular practices. My work with the ISO technical committee in introducing standards for a circular economy indicates that an effective definition can be suggested:

an economic system built on maintaining a circular flow of resources to eliminate waste and resource extraction by regenerating, retaining or adding to their value while contributing to sustainable development.

The first challenge is accepting the basis of the circular economy. It is fundamentally about manufacturing less not more; a seismic shift in industry, commerce and lifestyle. The circular economy involves strategies such as:

  • sharing, for example by carpooling; leasing; and even adopting simple strategies like buying second-hand clothing and goods;
  • companies sharing production infrastructure;
  • developing products with very extended lifetimes;
  • designing products that can be readily refurbished, disassembled or remanufactured;
  • developing products that are readily repaired or reused; and
  • reusing expensive components, including, for example, silicon chips, which currently are not recycled despite worldwide shortages.

The second challenge relates to technical issues, and a key focus of my work is in trying to innovate new technologies for repeated use of materials and how we maintain or add value through these processes. If we think about value in economic terms, strategies such as recycling are ineffective. Recycled polymers are generally more expensive than newly manufactured versions. Recycled materials generally perform worse because of property changes in less-than-perfect recycling methodologies. Developing new infrastructure and appropriate methods are critical.

The concept of value must also change. Recycled plastics reduce carbon emissions by a factor of 2 to 3 compared to new fossil fuel-based equivalents, and they must be advantaged. Policy, legislation and taxes must change dramatically to reflect values in a more holistic sense than just pricing.

A final critical challenge is how we measure circularity—a key part of my work. Circularity is not simply recycling rates. In Ireland we often view recycling as a waste mitigation strategy; it isn’t, it’s about waste avoidance. We need to provide methods to measure resources used and lost through the repetitive life cycles. We need to measure environmental impacts (emissions, embodied carbon, energy used, benefits to biodiversity, land reclamation, etc.) and social effects (availability of recreational spaces, personal well-being, employment and educational opportunities, amongst others). We critically need to assess profitability and the advantages of companies as they introduce circular strategies. Thus, circularity isn’t a number, a percentage or a box tick; it’s an array of multiple measurements and assessments. These measurements need to be standardised, so that they are verifiable and transparent. Standards need to evolve to ensure circularity reports are meaningful (that is, to avoid simply greenwashing).

Whilst a circular economy raises many challenges, the benefits are enormous. We must recognise, however, that it will impact everyone’s everyday lives. Like society in the 1780s, we have no idea today how the future will look, but we must be prepared for the dramatic changes that will occur.

Read other Member Research Series articles.

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