Embracing the Circular Economy
A circular economy aims to eliminate waste by continually using resources through initiatives such as remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling and resharing.
Researchers from the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates and Japan, led by the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, found the pandemic has underscored the shortfalls of the “extract, produce, use and dump”—or a linear economic model.
“The circular economy is about designing something with longevity in mind,” said Taofeeq Ibn-Mohammed, PhD, assistant professor in the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick. “A manufacturer or vendor of products or services develops their business model in such a way to make efficient use of their materials or energy resources they use.”
Building back better
When the pandemic enforced lockdowns in various nations, manufacturing, production lines and supply chains were disrupted, exposing weaknesses in management systems.
In the medical sector there was a global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), while panic-buying in supermarkets left shelves bare.
Around the world project managers had to refocus operations to meet changing demands and manage stakeholder expectations.
Companies pivoted their factory floors to respond to the shortages, using circular economy principles—whether intentionally or not.
Clothing firm Barbour repurposed its manufacturing activities to make PPE for nurses. Aerospace company BAE Systems deployed its factory resources to produce face shields.
Ibn-Mohammed believes these circular economy actions will kick-start the global recovery.
It is not a smooth ride
There are many barriers to implementing a circular economy. “There is no globally acceptable methodological framework for doing these operations,” said Ibn-Mohammed. “A particular developer of a product is not compelled by law to provide data.”
The problem is there is no common standard to define how materials are used in a product. Two companies, for example, could make similar products using the same materials, but the way they use each material for the product could be different. In turn, this impacts how they should be repurposed.
Ibn-Mohammed is calling for a calculation of the environmental impact of the materials in a product; he advocates for a benchmark that gives transparency about the materials employed.
“A benchmark is something that helps you to know what can get the best out of the materials, and what mix will lead to the best longevity. Based on all the aggregate data, managers can see the optimum material needed to make a product.”
Understanding through technology
One way project managers can support a circular economy model is through digital technologies.
Ibn-Mohammed said: “Big data analytics can be used to streamline supplier selection processes, cloud computing to facilitate and manage supplier relationships, and the Internet of Things (IoT) for enhancing logistics and shipping processes.”
He believes technology could have helped with the supply chain problems caused by COVID-19 by identifying gaps in the system in real time and quickly finding alternatives.
Technology can also be used to build products more efficiently. For example, artificial intelligence (AI)-driven pattern recognition can help identify the optimal sources of raw materials to build components that are better for a circular economy model.
“There are rich data sets in every sector that can give us very good insight and give us strategies on how to design a product,” Ibn-Mohammed said.
In the construction industry, technology is helping to identify materials that can be reused or recycled. For example, some companies have started using a digital material construction passport to give them insight into the health and safety of a building. It can track the components in a building and identify when they need to be reused or recycled.
However, the use of this type of technology is far from widespread. Given the high carbon footprint the construction industry emits, Ibn-Mohammed hopes more of the industry will embrace these changes to help fuel the COVID-19 recovery.
Working together to solve the world’s problems
To be able to move away from a linear economy model of “take, make and dump,” the research outlined a collaborative approach.
“All stakeholders over every sector have to work together,” Ibn-Mohammed said. “The way to do that is for policymakers, academia and professionals in the industry to come together. People have to be supported by policy instruments as well as by the government itself.”
That will include setting up collaboration platforms and public-private partnerships that encourage information sharing and developing initiatives to establish a benchmark of how materials can be used in the circular economy.
“If you can measure it, you can manage it,” Ibn-Mohammed said.