Metall. Res. Technol.
Volume 112, Number 2, 2015
|Number of page(s)
|15 April 2015
Life-cycle assessment, resource efficiency and recycling⋆
Secretary General, ESTEP
Accepted: 4 March 2015
The Circular Economy is a contemporary and popular concept that describes how materials and resources should be handled in the future: the European Commission has recently published a communication setting the relevant policy trends. The present paper discusses some of these issues, proposing an analysis of what the concept means from the standpoint of materials stakeholders and how it can be refined or nuanced with a practical approach in mind. The core of the Circular Economy is the recycling of materials, which are recovered from the collection of end-of-life (EoL) investment or consumer goods. The key word is therefore recycling of EoL goods, materials, metals, minerals, residues and by-products and also molecules, like CO or CO2 (Carbon Capture Use and Storage, CCUS). Recycling brings materials savings and reduces the need for virgin resources (primary raw materials). When materials are recycled to the same material, other environmental benefits can also be collected, like energy savings, greenhouse gas emission reduction and a smaller environmental footprint in general. The kind of recycling that ought to be privileged is therefore that which improves all of these indicators at the same time, thus material-to-the-same material recycling. The circular economy should be described material by material, in order to analyze in detail what is already being done and what can still be improved: the various materials achieve very different levels of recycling and thus policies for going beyond present achievements will differ according to each material. The circular economy has an important time dimension, as many materials are stocked in the economy for long times, sometimes half a century or more. The lifespan of the material stocks means that high recycling rates today will be translated into high-recycled contents only in the future, sometimes in the long time. The Circular Economy is a long-time endeavor! There are two important tools for dealing with these issues, LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) and MFA (Materials Flow Analysis). They incorporate the cycle time of recycling but need to be expanded into dynamic LCA and MFA in order to become fully time-dependent. Policies founded on LCA at a microeconomic scale, and MFA at a macro-economic scale are the most apt to mirror how the socio-economic system works and thus to avoid negative rebound effects. Fostering the use of these tools is an important element in encouraging the Circular Economy. But it is also important to understand that the rationale for moving in this direction is environmental and political, not necessarily economical. Thus it will not be enough to foster technological R&D (Research & Development) and to achieve R&I (Research & Innovation): tools to internalize these externalities in the market economy will need to be introduced more widely.
Key words: Circular economy / recycling of materials / recycling of end-of-life goods / recycling of substances / LCA / MFA / rebound effects
© EDP Sciences 2015
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