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Comment & Analysis

Engineering the Circular Economy

Sandy Rodger

The circular economy challenge is to persevere and maintain the integrity and value of products and materials
The circular economy challenge is to persevere and maintain the integrity and value of products and materials

Sandy Rodger CEng, engineer and business leader, explores what the Circular Economy means for engineering.

Business fads come and go. A new term is invented, consultants make money for a while, and then along comes the next one. I predict the current intensive coverage of the Circular Economy will also be temporary, but for a different reason. In time it will just be “the economy.” You don’t have to be an engineer (although it helps) to realise that more, wealthier, more interconnected, people will need stuff at a rate that is simply impossible if we use everything just once and throw it away. Whatever the exact details or definitions, some kind of circular model will prevail. Our successors will look back on the period 1750-2050 as an aberration, when humanity achieved massive progress based on one-time use of resources, before getting things back in balance, in a new form that supports a large modern industrial society. This (I admit) is the optimist’s view of the anthropocene.

So this article takes the Circular Economy for granted – that it will happen, in some form. If you want more on this, look here.

The question here is what it means for engineering? There are a myriad specific answers – new technologies, many of them not yet imagined. But let me focus on three themes:

1. Re-engineering global supply chains – with a new view of scale

Many linear supply chains today are global. Mined in Australia, manufactured in China, packaged in Singapore, distributed to customers everywhere, and becoming waste, also everywhere. All the upstream stages can be accomplished at huge - global - scale.

Suppose we go circular. Now the above can be the supply chain only for the first-time manufacture of a product, which will be re-used, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled - each cycle passing through the customer’s hands. The centre of gravity of that supply chain will shift closer to the customer. Many of these “re” stages will be more localised. Some of these are new processes in themselves, some need to become economical at a smaller scale. How do we modularise technology so it can work at a local level? What business models and skills will make this work? For more detail on these new supply chain models, read here.

So this is engineering challenge number one, and a great opportunity for the manufacturing sector, especially in countries like the UK that have extensively outsourced manufacturing over recent decades.

2. Systems thinking driving design

The recent report on the New Plastics Economy is a story of a broken system. Manufacturing industry supplies plastic packaging that stands almost no chance of true recycling. Cities and waste companies catch whatever lands in their neighbourhood from the ever-changing portfolio of plastic materials and formats, and struggle to create enough value to justify anything better than landfill or incineration. 32% of the waste isn’t collected at all. This is not the product of ill intent, or even stupidity, but it is a failure to think of the system as a whole - a huge failure of design.

The Circular Economy is critically about design and about systems thinking. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s extensive education programme “provides cutting edge insights and content to support circular economy education and the systems thinking required to accelerate a transition.” For the population as a whole this a big new area of learning, and a stretch for an educational system built around subject silos.

But if there is one group who should already understand systems thinking, it is engineers. Engineers are often the ones who can ask the right questions to broaden the design discussion. The key question in this case is “what’s next” – in other words what happens to a product after use?

In the linear economy this question is often ignored by the designer – it is someone else’s problem. In the circular economy it is an integral part of the design and the business model. This is a challenge in technical terms, obviously, but also taxes engineers as leaders and influencers, requiring us to look broadly and long-term in a business context which often prefers quite the opposite. Engineers as contrarians. Engineering challenge number two.

3. The entropy challenge – from random waste to pure raw materials

I used to run factories for Unilever and Diageo, and a recurring theme of quality management was to achieve consistency in incoming raw materials. But in truth that was only ever a question of where in the supply chain the randomness of nature is taken out. The miner has to find a good seam of ore, the refiner takes it further, and each stage in the process makes the product more precise and pure. It’s about manufacturing processes, control and measurement systems, administration of standards and specifications. This is normal, something engineers have always worked on.

Then our beautiful pristine products go to the customer who uses them, and often throws them away. And the natural randomness returns – maybe even worse, with chemicals and combinations never found in nature. In the linear economy we typically give up at this point, and burn, bury or just lose the thing. We give it a new name at this point – a name which confirms we have given up – waste.

The circular economy challenge is to persevere at this point and maintain the integrity and value of products and materials. To some extent this may be a temporary (if huge) challenge of mining landfills and taking plastics out of the ocean. But addressing the challenge at its heart is about creating ongoing circles of use, so waste simply doesn’t exist, as in nature. And here there are great technical challenges – trying where possible to re-use items without breaking them back down to materials, then in the last resort identifying and separating materials to create high-value recycling streams which become the staple raw material source for the next product.

I’m referring here to so-called technical materials like metals and plastics – biodegradable materials are another story, where natural decay processes should indeed take place. This too requires new pathways which seldom exist today.

To a limited extent we may ask the citizen to do more to keep things separate. But the work on plastics suggests it may be better to have high compliance with simpler, more consistent waste collection, rather than attempt more precise separation that many citizens don’t follow. So that leaves separation to the professionals – particularly to the engineers.

We can also use design in a preventative mode to lessen the randomness. Don’t use a needless variety of materials, or bond together things that need to be separated later. Biomimicry teaches us that nature uses clever structures, with relatively few chemicals, to achieve amazing engineering. Put compatible things together - compostable food packaging which can be disposed of along with food residues. Make smart use of tagging and tracking technologies to facilitate separation and carry specification information.

So we’re designing to achieve separation, and designing to avoid it. And overcoming entropy needs energy - renewable of course. All this is a huge hotbed of innovation – engineering challenge number three.

So the Circular Economy makes me optimistic. It’s a better model for the industrial system as a whole. It invites a rejuvenation of manufacturing, and of engineering, especially in countries like the UK where these sectors have so diminished in recent times. If we are proud of engineering, and of manufacturing, this is an open goal.

Sandy Rodger is an engineer and business leader, who held senior roles in manufacturing, supply chain and R&D, with Unilever and Diageo, before joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2013 to lead project MainStream.

He now works freelance, supporting organisations with their transition to the Circular Economy.

The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of the Institution.

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