What Role Do Engineers Play in a Circular Economy

Throughout human history, until very recently, all economic activity has been linear in nature, centered on extracting or harvesting natural resources, and adding value to them by transforming them into products. Those products are sold or traded for something else of value, used until they are consumed or are no longer needed or wanted. In a linear economy, every product has a finite life span and eventually is discarded as waste. At that point, all the value that was added to the original natural resources (i.e., the labor, energy, and additional materials that went into production processes, transportation, distribution, etc.) is lost and the product’s embedded carbon is released into the environment. In addition, waste is generated at every stage, from resource extraction to disposal of products at the end of their useful life.

The impetus for the shift toward a circular economy arises from the recognition that the planet’s natural resources are finite. There is no one universally accepted definition of a circular economy, but certain elements commonly arise in discussions of the concept, such as renewable energy sources, keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, zero waste, and the important role engineering plays in creating what the World Economic Forum describes as an “industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

Got Stuff? We buy surplus inventory and hard to recycle items. Call us before you send it to the landfill!

Design for a Circular Economy

It’s not only product design that is essential to transitioning away from a linear economy; it’s the design of materials, products, production systems and processes, and business models. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has been working actively with organizations in the education, business, and government sectors to speed the transition to a circular economic model, emphasizes designing waste out of products and processes alike so that reuse, repair, regeneration, remanufacturing, recycling, and other ways to keep products and materials in use become the standard by design.

Designing for a circular economy cuts across all engineering disciplines and involves new industrial models centered on reuse, repair, recycling, eco-design, sustainability, industrial ecology. The last of these is described in the Encyclopedia of Energy as “the means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain sustainability, given continued economic, economic, cultural, and technological evolution … It is a systems view in which one seeks to optimize the total materials cycle from virgin material, to finished material, to component, to product, to obsolete product, and to ultimate disposal. Factors to be optimized are resources, energy and capital.” The idea is that engineering becomes an ecosystem that uses everything that flows through it and in which waste is a valuable resource.

Implications for Engineering

Engineers will encounter both challenges and opportunities and could play a very important role in driving the shift from a linear economy to a circular one. For example, today’s manufacturing supply chains are largely global, with resources extracted in one country, components produced in another, products manufactured in still another, and distributed and sold in others. With re-use, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling, a global supply chain doesn’t make much sense after a product’s first-time manufacture. Designing new supply chain models that shift closer to customers will be a high priority.

In the circular economy, systems thinking is integral to the design and business model. Engineers are masters of systems thinking, which puts them in an excellent position to exert influence and provide leadership.

The real engineering challenge is to find ways to create ongoing circles of use and re-use so that waste does not exist. For example, what changes need to be made to support re-use of products without having to break them down to materials or to create recycling streams that become the source of raw materials for the next products. Engineers will need to find ways to make greater use of natural, biodegradable materials rather than manufactured materials (e.g., metals and plastics).

Benefits of a Circular Economy

Transitioning to a circular economy, nationally and globally, will require leadership by and collaboration among businesses and governments, and the technical knowledge and engineering and design skills to make it happen. It won’t happen quickly or easily, but the environmental, economic, and social benefits of decoupling resource consumption and economic growth are undeniable. The process is already underway, and engineers are at the forefront of the effort.

Contact Repurposed Materials today to find out how we can help you find a new home for unwanted materials.