The Circular Economy

circular economy

The rising costs of materials and energy are significant concerns in manufacturing today. At the same time, the pressure to use greener technologies, from government regulations, retailers, and end-users alike, is affecting manufacturing more deeply than ever before.

Kill two birds with one stone by tapping into the circular economy. The circular economy is, at its simplest, the idea that one facility’s waste can be another facility’s raw materials.

Industrial byproducts can be used for packaging. Waste papers can be recycled into new paper, as can alternate fibers… including human hair. Old shoes can become safe playground surfaces.

The thing about a circular economy is that it requires planning and cooperation. Even paper recycling, one of the oldest types of materials repurposing, requires planning to make the first round of raw materials suitable for recycling as many times as possible. The choice of inks, for example, can limit the recycling options.

So knowing your upstream supplier can help you to optimize the use of his raw materials. Knowing your downstream recipient of waste can help you to optimize the use of your raw materials. Imagine, now, if you know and plan for not just your immediate upstream and downstream, but for five steps along the process in either direction. You might even be able to make best use of your materials all the way until they come back to you. That’s where the process really gets circular.

As large companies like Subaru and Unilever achieve zero waste factories, it’s increasingly clear that the first step toward success is a change of mind. The product has to be planned and understood not from the delivery of raw materials to the hand of the consumer — itself a forward step from thinking of it from raw materials delivery to leaving the factory. The plan has to go all the way to post-consumer re-use and recycling. And it has to start with recycled rather than raw materials.

Reducing the supply chain to limit energy use is another essential step. That step can shorten the distance between the source of recycled materials and the next iteration of those materials, with the resulting waste having a pre-planned home with the next facility to use the waste as recycled materials.

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