Global challenges make the circular economy a necessity

New global challenges are emerging. Worldwide population is now at 7.8 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Economic well-being is fuelling consumption but also over-consumption and materialism. Waste is proliferating and natural resources are being depleted. Already, 75% of the Earth’s surface is showing signs of degradation.

In a recent IEC managed networking session hosted by the Chair of the IEC Advisory Group on Environmental Aspects (ACEA), Solange Blaszkowski, presented the circular economy as a solution to these challenges and how standards can help.

Transitioning to a Green Economy

The concept of a circular economy is a reconsideration of how resources are managed and how waste is perceived throughout the lifecycle of a product. Blaszkowski provides the following definition of a circular economy: a systemic approach to the design of products, enabling sustainable economic growth by managing resources effectively as a result of making the flow of materials more circular and reducing and ultimately eliminating waste.

Circular mechanisms are introduced, allowing for products and materials to be reused, repaired, refurbished, remanufactured and, ultimately, recycled. As Blaszkowski notes, “The circular economy is a powerful instrument to achieve sustainable economic growth while retaining the value of resources in the economy.”

Focusing on material efficiency

The efficient use of material is an essential part of the circular economy. It consists of the conservation of materials by making products more durable, resource-efficient and facilitates the reuse or recycling of parts at the end of life.

According to Blaszkowsi, “Material efficiency expresses how efficiently materials can be used to deliver a function and the extent to which they are kept in use and not discarded. The ultimate objective is to keep material in use forever”.

For many years, regulation has focused on ensuring the energy efficiency of products. Now, however, with the increased demand for materials combined with the imminent scarcity of resources, the focus is shifting to material usage and preservation.

Circular economy impact on standardization

New trend will emerge with implications for standardization. For example, what will be the implication for safety, reliability and performance as products last longer? How will data removal and security be guaranteed as the ownership of a product changes?

As products are repaired, what will be the minimum requirements for parts reliability, including repaired parts? And, as products contain recycled parts, how will the safety and performance of these recycled parts be assured?

Measuring circularity

In order to better understand the impact of the circular economy, data will be needed can assess, for example, reused components within a product or the amount of recycled materials. However, accessing such data for electrical and electronic products is challenging given the complexity of the supply chain.

As noted by session panellist Walter Jager from IEC TC 111, “To be effective given the large number of suppliers and the different materials in those components, we need to have standards that enable a common language”.

Finding new business models

The move towards a circular economy will require the introduction of new business models. According to the session panellist Jens Giegerich from ACEA, business models based on renting or leasing products are emerging. “More appliances are available for renting, such as pay-per-use or pay-per-month. We can expect that leasing models will grow in the future”.

However, not all products will be suitable for such a model. As Giegerich notes, “small appliances like kettles offer little or no incentive to rent given their low price. However, this model is suitable for products like washing machines as is already the case in some European countries”.

E-waste challenge

The growing amount e-waste remains a challenge. Standardization work is underway for the sustainable management of e-waste which is directly linked to the initial product design and durability. Tools are needed that can assess the durability, repairability, upgradeability, and, eventually, the recovery and reuse of components.

According to Claudia Kuss-Tenzer, an environmental professional on the panel, “Resource circularity is not necessarily sustainable. We must think holistically about the absolute impact and not exclusively on resource management and resource effectiveness. We must look at the macro-level to achieve sustainability of circular economy”

About the networking sessions

As part of its virtual 2020 General Meeting, the IEC organized a series of moderated networking sessions on topics such as the circular economy, artificial intelligence, cyber security and 5G. These 

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