Originally written by Dr. Natalie Beinisch-Co-Founder at Circular Economy Innovation Partnership.
As excitement about the Circular Economy grows so too do calls for proper definitions and measurement of circular economic activity. Luckily, the field of social and environmental measurement is going through a renaissance and there are a dizzying variety of concepts and tools to choose from when confronted with the challenge of describing and measuring “circular economies”.
Is there a gold standard of measurement?
The truth is there is no silver bullet. “Circular Economy” refers to a wide range of industrial activities, that cover every step of production, distribution, and disposal from apparel to wood product manufacturing. Circular Economy models furthermore promise to create economic as well as environmental benefits and are now embedded in a political discourse of a “Just Transition” and “Building Back Better”, which emphasize social equality and cohesion. This further complicates the task of measurement.
Relying on one measurement approach entirely to assess circularity is akin to using a single match to carry out a night-time search and rescue mission. Measurement approaches must be combined to shine the greatest light possible on their subjects.
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is an established measurement tool that deserves attention. Its origins date back to the emergence of interest in resource efficiency in the 1960s. LCA breaks down full production processes and measures energy and resource consumption at each stage in the process. This breakdown can be compared against an alternative.
For example, a fully traditional or “linear” production process can be compared against a “circular” alternative where waste from production is converted into energy or another product. The benefit of using LCA approach is that it is a standardized methodology which can be used to analyze and compare almost any production process. Another benefit of LCA is that it is comprehensive; it allows us to evaluate the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle. LCA is therefore highly relevant to the Circular Economy.
Amos Ncube, based at University of Naples “Parthenope’ and an Early-Stage Researcher within the ReTraCE http://www.retrace-itn.eu/ project funded by Horizon 2020 EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks, has devoted some time applying LCA to evaluate the potential environmental benefits of circular economy processes. Having used this approach to examine the production of wine and olive oil in Italy, biogas in Canada and bricks in Zimbabwe, he argues that compared to business-as-usual an LCA approach “provides evidence that we can reduce our environmental impact by a factor of 2 or 3 by using Circular Economy principles to incorporate waste back into energy streams.”
For example, in their work on a brick factory in Zimbabwe, Ncube and his colleagues identified fly ash, a by-product of burning coal that is toxic when disposed of improperly, as an alternative to clay to make bricks. Using the LCA approach they found clay mining to have the most significant environmental impact in the brick production process, representing 65% of the total impact of brick production. According to their analysis, a full transition from clay to fly-ash based bricks would not only yield a 10% environmental impact reduction in brick production, buildings constructed with fly-ash bricks also improve energy efficiency. This reduces energy consumption within these buildings by up to 25%. It would also address fly ash disposal challenges in Zimbabwe.
Under the supervision of Prof Ulgiati and Dr Fiorentino who are experts in environmental evaluation methods including LCA, Ncube recognizes the drawbacks of LCA. As Ncube puts it “LCA is purely an environmental form of measurement. It doesn’t take other costs of substituting production materials into account”. Consequently, LCA provides a model of an environmentally ideal production process but no sense of how to get there nor the economic and social consequences. This limitation is especially important in the African context, where social and economic development are a high priority for most governments.
Another criticism of LCA is that it offers a binary “black and white” comparison when in reality the world is full of shades of grey. According to Maj Munch Andersen, Associate Professor, Forest Nature and Biomass at the University of Copenhagen, another way to look at production processes is in terms of “degrees of circularity.” She argues that cascading, which focuses on maximizing the resource efficiency of bio-based products over multiple lifecycles can also address trade-offs between product design and waste management, which is at the heart of many current debates about the circular economy.
Ncube has come to the conclusion that LCA helps to make a convincing case that there are significant environmental benefits that can be realized from making changes to production processes to make them more circular. However, once this fact has been made obvious the real work lies in figuring out whether these changes are feasible and whether they provide other benefits to business and society. This is the focus of Ncube’s secondment under the African Circular Economy Network (ACEN- https://www.acen.africa/) to identify barriers and enablers for successful circular economy implementation in selected African countries.
This is part of a series of articles which highlight Africa-centered Circular Economy Research.