While on vacation, you purchase a cold drink from a convenience store. Once empty, you decide to keep the disposable bottle and refill it with water from a nearby drinking fountain. A few days later, you place the old bottle in a container identified for recyclable recipients hoping it will be recycled. This mundane scenario is one many of us have experienced, thinking recycling was a good thing and the whole world benefited from it. But is that the case?
According to statistics compiled by the World Economic Forum, the total bottle recycling rate for 2020 was 27.2%, down from 28.7% in 2019. Although more and more manufacturers such as Patagonia are using recycled soda bottles to produce clothing, new bottles sourced by beverage companies don’t include a large percentage of recycled material: Two very large companies stated that about 6% to 7% of new bottles were made from recycled material. Even after reusing and recycling them, bottles have a high cost beyond their initial production: 1- Money and infrastructure to support recycling and landfill processes; 2- Beverage companies having to constantly buy new bottles over and over again.
What if we could design out the value leakage for many products and keep the resources used forever in the loop? In this post, we will discuss the circular economy as a model of production and consumption, its main challenges, and how the Lifecycle Assessment plays a key role in achieving a more sustainable economy and world.
Reduce, Recycle, Repurpose and More
The circular economy is a system that aims to eliminate waste and keep resources and existing materials in use for as long as possible. It can be expressed by the 9Rs: Reduce by Design, Recycle, Repurpose, Remanufacture, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Refuse and Reduce. By designing products that minimize the use of raw materials and energy, extending their lifespan and ensuring their recyclability, the circular economy creates value for both businesses and society. However, implementing circular economy is not without challenges for manufacturers:
- Need to redesign products and processes to enable circularity.
- Lack of consistent regulations and standards supporting circular practices and incentivizing innovation.
- Difficulty of accessing reliable sources of recycled or renewable materials that meet the customer expectations.
- Lack of awareness and demand for circular products and services.
LCA and Virtual Twin: A Powerful Solution for a Circular Economy
One way to overcome these challenges is to deploy and use a virtual twin environment that embeds lifecycle assessment (LCA) to design, develop, test and manufacture. With this combined solution, companies see and assess the environmental impact of their choices before they become a reality. LCA and virtual twin help manufacturers to:
- Evaluate environmental impacts based on scientific evidence within the virtual twin and make sustainability-driven decisions.
- Drive collaborative innovation by leveraging standardized environmental data accessible to all stakeholders across the entire value chain.
- Achieve sustainability targets by optimizing operations and complying with regulations.
- Scale up sustainable innovation by leveraging LCA and predictive capabilities on a unified platform to align common objectives and embed eco-design practices in the early design stages.
Taking Stock of LCA Benefits in a Circular Economy
Pairing LCA with virtual twins provides several benefits:
Improved resource efficiency
LCA delivers a holistic view of the environmental impact of a product or service, allowing companies to identify areas where resource efficiency can be improved. By optimizing resource use across the entire lifecycle, from raw material extraction to disposal, businesses reduce their reliance on virgin materials and minimize waste, thereby contributing to a circular economy.
With quantitative and qualitative data, LCA informs decision-making throughout the product lifecycle. By using LCA to evaluate the environmental impact of different design and production choices, businesses identify the most sustainable options and make informed decisions that align with their circular economy goals.
Increased transparency and accountability
LCA is a standardized methodology for assessing the environmental impact of products and services. This helps businesses to communicate their sustainability efforts to stakeholders, and provides a basis for accountability and reporting on progress toward circular economy targets.
LCA helps identify areas where innovation is needed to reduce environmental impact. By identifying the hotspots in the product lifecycle, LCA inspire innovation in product design, production processes, and end-of-life management, leading to more sustainable products and services. That’s the case of TECKDES, a consulting firm that helped Coca-Cola reduce the plastic consumption in its Aquarius water bottles. Read the case study.
A LCA integrated in a virtual twin is a key enabler of a circular economy, as it helps manufacturers to create more value with fewer resources, while reducing the environmental footprint of their products. As consumers become more environmentally conscious and demand sustainable products, businesses that adopt and integrate circular economy principles into their business model gain a competitive and sustainable advantage. By reducing environmental impact and offering more sustainable products, businesses appeal to the growing number of consumers who prioritize sustainability and favor a more circular economy when making purchasing decisions.
LCA and Virtual Twins: Built-In Sustainability for Products and Manufacturing