5 Roads To A Circular Economy - Part III: Reusing Waste

In a circular economy, the intention is to produce no waste or pollution. Instead, products, parts and materials are used, cared for, repaired, reused and recycled as much as possible. This requires new and innovative approaches to business, and assessment methods such as LCA to measure the effect. In our circular economy miniseries, we’ll address five ways to apply the circular economy in your business. Today: reusing waste.

By Paula Bernstein on June 14, 2016


Circular economy focuses on changing the thinking from a traditional linear production cycle to a circular system. One focus is on understanding how traditional waste can be used elsewhere, whether earlier in the production of the product that created the waste or in the production of another product altogether. Looking at waste from a circular economy perspective, you argue that ‘waste is a resource in the wrong place.’ Resource recovery is a key part of making an economy circular. There are two main ways to think about this.


Preventing Material Leakage

First, eliminating material leakage from the production cycle. This is actually the easier of the two concerns to address: reduced material leakage usually translates into cost savings and increased efficiency, which is interesting for any company. Also, anything within the control of the company and within the walls of the facility is typically relatively easy for the company to control.


In many corporations, food waste in particular is a major issue. A great example of a company addressing this is DSM, who have partnered with POET, LLC to create a new bio-ethanol. This programme works with industrial-level corn crop residue: cobs, leaves, stalks, and husks that are left after the corn has been harvested. This project will consume about 285,000 tonnes of residues annually, thereby removing the residue from the farm production waste stream and entering it into the DSM production system. Thinking about this from an LCA perspective in addition to a circular economy perspective, this approach reduces the impact of the farm system by sending the waste to a new, useful product.


Creating A Closed-loop System

The second aspect to consider is the end of life of the product. In a circular economy approach, such a cradle-to-cradle and integrated closed-loop system, a product reaching the end of its useful life can be turned into something new. In other words, waste from a discarded product is now the primary resource for developing or producing a new product. Meticulously closing these loops can be challenging, because it is difficult to control what a consumer does with a product at the end of its life.


E-Waste (discarded electronics) is a major problem for landfills, for example. Electronics can be difficult to recycle and many recyclers just export e-waste to developing countries. IBM’s end-of-life-management operations processed 32,000 metric tonnes of end-of-life pre- and post-consumer products. Out of these collected tonnes, IBM:

  • recycled 54.9%
  • refurbished and resold 34.9%
  • reused 6.8%
  • sent 2.9% to waste to energy


Impressively, that means only 0.5% was sent to landfills. From a life-cycle perspective, using recycled products reduces the need for raw materials to create the new product. It also reduces the impact of the initial product at end of life.


Making The Circular Economy Feasible With LCA

The companies mentioned in this article have not only reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also reduced their costs in the process. Some more great examples of using circular economy concepts to address waste can be found in the article “Trash to Treasure” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. By changing our thinking to see waste as a resource rather than a cost, we are one step closer to achieving a circular economy system.


Of course, it is important to quantify and analyse the options that are available for recycling, reuse and end-of-life recovery. Not all of them may be equally beneficial. An excellent, science-based method to help you decide is LCA. LCA and SimaPro are excellent tools to make the concept of circular economy feasible and more than just an inspirational idea.


Learn More About Circular Economy and LCA

If you want to learn more about the topic, please contact us. Or read the other stories of our mini-series:


Part I: Product Life Extension

Part II: Product-as-a-Service

Contact the author

Paula Bernstein worked for PRé from 2013 to February 2018. Her areas of expertise included environmental product performance, LCA databases, and supply chain sustainability measurement. Paula collaborated structurally in LCA and sustainability metrics implementation projects for many industries, such as apparel, food, and building & construction. She also worked closely with the PRé software team to implement databases in PRé’s software package SimaPro.

Contact Paula Bernstein
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For a global footwear and apparel producer, PRé conducted a life cycle assessment on their waste disposal methods. The 138 individual life cycle models in this analysis help determine the best options and improve company approach.