When talking about the circular economy many people automatically think about increasing recycling rates as the only way to achieve a zero-waste economy. And these people are not only common citizens concerned with environmental crisis but they are also government officials, businessmen and researchers. Some experts in the area have already raised this concern in the media when the European Union issued its communication on circular economy last July pointing its bias towards recycling options which is not what is at the heart of this proposal.
As pointed out in the most popular report about circular economy developed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation in 2013, recycling should be the last option when aiming to close the loop. Even the European Union in its definition of the waste framework directive has recycling as a step to be taken after prevention of waste and reuse/repair activities. One of the main reasons for this, in our opinion. is that by recycling we only recover materials and energy and not something very valuable: knowledge.
Three elements are used when producing something: materials, energy and information. The latter is included in all the stages of product development: idea, development, manufacturing and launch. This information comes in the form of technical specification, aesthetics, materials information, etc. For example, car tires have materials as rubber that has to comply with specific requirements; energy is also contained in them and not less important, they have information incorporated which is more evident in the design aspects of it. When they are turned into energy we are certainly recovering energy but we are losing both materials and information.
Another example is related to recycling of critical materials contained in electronics. Today we are aiming to recover gold and copper from wasted products by dismantling them and putting these materials through the whole production process again. Dismantling a complex product as tv sets or smartphones to just have access to critical raw materials means wasting energy and knowledge that was invested in the first place in terms of design, technical aspects and functionality. A different story would be if we reuse, remanufacture or refurbish these devices: information and materials would be saved and only some energy would be used in the process.
The circular economy aims to change mindsets, to move from a material-based economy to a value-based society where people satisfy their needs through things, but things are not the needs. The job that things perform is the important feature, what they can do and what people can do with them. As an economist might put it: we have to move from a rivalrous definition of goods to a non-rivalrous one if we want to make the transition. Therefore we need to think about closing the loop by not only saving materials or energy but also information, and maybe adding information to that material/energy base as ecosystems do.
If we focus our efforts on just recycling, we will be losing the information that many people have put in designing and producing products which means wasting time and resources. The right approach from a circular perspective is that of the inner circles as explained by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and many others working and thinking about circular economy.