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Circular Economy Success Secret: Start With Product Design

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The World Bank predicts that global annual waste generation will have reached 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. That’s almost a 75 percent increase on the 2 billion tons we generate today. Building a circular economy will play a crucial role in reducing this forecast. Here, Mats W Lundberg, head of sustainability at global engineering group Sandvik, looks at why circularity needs to be considered from the initial design process; otherwise, it’s already too late.

Product lifecycles traditionally follow a linear economy, where materials are transformed into products that are then used and thrown away in a ‘take-make-waste approach. This is unsustainable.

The primary principle of a circular economy is keeping assets in use to create a responsible way of using resources while reducing waste. Circularity is crucial in closing the loop of product life cycles.

A key component of this is keeping products in use for as long as possible, such as sharing, maintaining, reusing, and remanufacturing the product. The preferred end-of-life strategy is recycling, which is perhaps the most common circular economy approach adopted.

Time to Act

Manufacturers should take steps to reduce waste in line with goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which is ‘responsible consumption and production’. In addition, a 2020 survey by IBM found that over seven in ten consumers say it’s either moderately or very important that brands are sustainable, environmentally responsible, and support recycling.

The circular economy is applicable for all products, no matter how large or small. For example, a mobile phone is a relatively small piece of technology but can produce a high amount of waste. The average person replaces their phone every two years, which can amount to as many as 35 phones in a lifetime.

Producing a single phone can require 240 gallons of water, and scientists have warned that many vital earth elements are becoming increasingly scarce due to the rate at which phones are manufactured and thrown away. This exemplifies how all products can require a large amount of materials, energy, and equipment to manufacture and are therefore part of a bigger chain of use and waste.

Conscious Design

This wider chain of consumption must be taken into consideration when designing a new product. Addressing ‘leakage points,’ where materials and energy escape out of the circular system, will maximize recovery of resources and help close the loop.

Redesigning products for sustainability is one of the advised actions in the World Economic Forum’s recent report, Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity. The action recommends design choices that reduce waste, improve recyclability, and increase the share of input recycled materials.

Sandvik incorporates a number of these practices in working towards its goal of achieving 90 percent circularity by 2030. For example, metalliferous waste and other by-products from its sites are reused or recycled to the greatest extent possible. In addition, around 82 percent of our stainless steel and special alloys are based on steel scrap or secondary raw material, as we call it.

Sandvik also practices circularity in its rebuild solutions for the mining industry. Traditionally, an exhausted piece of mining equipment would be discarded, but Sandvik offers a more sustainable alternative through its machine refurbishment service. Sandvik’s rebuild solutions have been estimated to extend the life of machines by as much as seven years, while at a fraction of the materials and cost required for a new

However, Sandvik not only considers circularity in its products and services but in its packaging too. Its Package Selector Application (PSA), which is planned to go live in the second half of 2021, uses an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that can analyze the product to select optimized packaging. By using the smallest packaging possible, material waste is reduced, and energy can be saved during transportation.

Recycling is Key

As well as designing out waste, manufacturers should consider what will happen to the product at the end of its use. Recycling can be encouraged through buy-back schemes, where the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) buys back the product from the consumer and recycles it. For example, Sandvik and its strategic business partner Stamicarbon offer a buy-back program for recycling high-alloy steel.

When customers in the urea fertilizer industry need to replace old equipment at their plants, Stamicarbon decommissions the heat exchangers with the precious alloys. Sandvik uses the recycled material in the production of new stainless steels. The equipment is replaced quickly and easily to avoid disruption to production. Every part of the value chain benefits from this model.

Sandvik deploys another buy-back scheme at its Wolfram site, where used cemented-carbide tools are converted back into basic raw materials. Making new tools from recycled solid carbide requires 70 percent less energy than producing with virgin raw materials. The process retrieves a high amount of tungsten, a scarce and finite material with reserves of only around 100 years of consumption left.

Sandvik is committed to using engineering and innovation to drive sustainable business by keeping products and materials in use. Today, 18 of Sandvik’s production units report 100 percent waste recovery, and Sandvik is ranked among the top ten percent of environmental performers in its industry globally by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).

It’s undeniable that the current rate of waste generation in the world is unsustainable, and more needs to be done to prevent materials from going to landfills. Manufacturers have the power to create real change by making the circular economy a key consideration in product design, therefore helping to keep valuable materials in use and preserve resources.

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