Sustainability is one of the big buzzwords, and the biggest verbal pushes, in today’s Procurement. (In practicality, most organizations won’t put their money where their mouth is and if the more sustainable solution is more than a point or two more cost-wise, environmentally damaging sweat-shop production, here we come!) We need to get there, because only an idiot would deny global warming (the last 13 years have seen 10 of the hottest year on record), and no one can deny the correlation between carbon emission, atmospheric carbon increase, and global warming. (You can argue just how much is due to carbon emission and how much due to other factors, many of which are indirectly caused by warming, but not that carbon is a problem.) Thus, even though we don’t know how much carbon reduction will help, we know it will, so we need to get there.
One big way to reduce carbon is to reduce production, which can done by reducing waste, which can be done through more refurbishment, repair, re-use, recycling, and reclamation — which are all part of the circular economy. Which is where we really need to get to (because waste is a problem — in addition to overflowing landfills that can pollute nearby water suppliers and make nearby land unfarmable, and even uninhabitable, think of the great pacific garbage patch and the containers of e-waste being sent to India, which has been a problem for well over a decade, see this 2010 article on the Times of India, and you start to get a grip on the magnitude of the problem).
But how efficient does the circular economy have to be to be effective? Theoretically, anything more that we do is one step better than what we are doing today, but, given that most products weren’t designed for recycle and reclamation, technologies for recycling and reclamation are immature and possibly carbon/generating themselves (especially if the answer is extract what we can, bury or burn the rest), and that there are breaks in the chain, is this leading to new waste that could possibly offset (or exceed) the expected (carbon) savings?
It’s a question Karolina Safarzynska, Lorenzo Di Domenico, and Marco Raberto recently tackled in an open-access paper on how the leakage effect may undermine the circular economy efforts available on nature.com. In the paper, the authors examine the impact of the circular economy on global resource extraction by way of an input-output analysis using an agent-based model of the capital sector. Through a detailed analysis they find that an appropriately structured circular economy economy can significantly reduce the extraction of iron, aluminum, and nonferrous metals if
implemented globally but the leakage effect may also cause some metal-intensive industries to relocate outside the EU, offsetting the circular economy efforts because an overlooked requirement for the circular economy is not just a reduction of waste, but a reduction of transport as transportation (air, rail, truck, and ship) contributes a significant amount of global carbon. In fact, if you go to Our World in Data, in the United States, the transportation sector accounts, like the energy (electricity and heat) sector, for approximately 30% of transportation emissions. The statistics right now are similar for the EU (24% for transportation and 28% for energy). So, if all of a sudden products need to be shipped halfway around the world to be recycled and reclaimed and the core materials shipped back, transportation-based emissions would increase significantly and possibly even overtake the extraction and raw material processing emissions!
In all fairness, we should note that the paper is pretty technical and metric heavy, and this is a bit of a simplification, but it’s the core idea we need to be aware of. It’s not an improvement if the carbon you take out of one segment is exceeded by changes in another. Just like we need to home/near-source for anything we can grow/mine/make at/near home, we also need to home/near reduce/reuse/refurbish/remanufacture/recycle whatever we can. It might be that the rare earths can only be mined in certain areas, but that doesn’t mean they have to be reclaimed and re-used there.