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Circular Economy in manufacturing

Manufacturers taking the lead toward the implementation of a sustainable development strategy

A linear economy, that extracts resources at increasing rates, according to the principles of take-make-use-dispose, without consideration of the environment in which it operates, cannot continue indefinitely. However, as remarked by Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal: “Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy. […] There is a huge potential to be exploited both for businesses and consumers”

Sustainability has become since years a key priority on which companies can invest to obtain benefits in terms of cost reduction, risk reduction in raw material and energy supply, as well as company’s social responsibility image. Accordingly, companies considered front-runner in the area of Eco Production have implemented solutions aimed at a drastic reduction in energy consumption and the use of renewable energy sources and are constantly searching for ways to reduce the ecological footprint of their processes, products and services.

However, sustainability also includes the investment in resilient production systems based on the availability of raw materials and auxiliary materials, which are capable of closing the material cycle in order to optimize the efficiency of raw material usage.

Circular Economy paradigm is gaining growing attention as a potential way for our society to increase prosperity, while reducing demands on finite raw materials and minimising negative externalities. Considering that the demand for raw materials has increased three times globally from 1970 to 2010, reaching a value of 70 billion tons in comparison with 22 billion tons in 1970, with a forecast of a further triplication to 2050, the investments on Circular Economy are becoming extremely urgent.

Such a transition requires a systemic approach, which entails moving beyond incremental improvements to the existing model as well as developing new collaboration mechanisms such as:

1) Circular supply chains with products designed to last longer by applying circular principles since the initial stages of the production process;

2) Resources Recovery, Re- use and Recycling.

3) Extension of products life-cycle

4) Exploitation of Sharing Platforms and collaboration among users by product groups,

5) Product-Service systems, such as through a “pay-per-use” contract.

Considering the manufacturing sector, estimates show that the benefits associated with a transition to circular economy are greater than the costs to be incurred. In fact, according to a report from the European Commission the transition to a circular economy could reduce the need for production factors by between 17 – 24% by 2030 , with savings for the EU industry of around € 630 billion per year through waste prevention, eco – compatible design and the reuse of materials. From an environmental point of view, this can be translated into a further reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2% to 4%.

Accordingly, the European Green Deal, presented by the European Commission in December 2019, includes Circular Economy as one of its main building blocks setting an ambitious roadmap towards a climate-neutral circular economy. Building on the work done since 2015, the New Circular Economy Action Plan focuses on the design and production for a circular economy, with the aim to ensure that the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible.

Thanks to this strategy and related investments the European Commission, with the support of local governments, is aiming at boosting the transition to Circular Economy which is already underway, guided by some frontrunner businesses. Indeed, although linear production is still prevailing on circular processes, there are a number of good practices around Europe developed by companies who invested in R&I and cooperation with other stakeholders along their value-chain.

AFIL, the Lombardy cluster for Advanced Manufacturing, is working since 2015 in promoting Circular Economy for Manufacturing among its associates and it has established a group with about 20 core members and 75 participants (from companies, RTOs, universities and industrial associations) taking part at meetings and workshops focused on the exchange of best practices in circular economy and debates on common issues. The thematic faced within the AFIL Working Group are mainly:

  • Innovative technologies for the management of products and materials at the End-of-Life, by enabling the collection of products and production waste to maximize their residual value through appropriate reuse, remanufacturing and recycling practices in the circular economy.
  • Sustainable processes and systems for the recovery of metals, materials, rare earths and composite materials, which also include human-robot cooperation.
  • Enabling technologies integrate semi-automatic disassembly, mechanical and chemical recovery processes, on-line inspection, remanufacturing and re-use of materials

If you want to have a look at the Lombardy Circular Economy Good Practices you can download the booklet here.

Also Sirris and Agoria, 2 other ADMA partner organisations, are deeply involved in Circular Flanders, the Belgian hub and inspiration for the circular economy. It is a partnership of governments, companies, civil society, and the knowledge community that will take action together. Over 240 circular cases already have been published. More info can be found through Thomas.vandenhaute@sirris.be . 

Similarly, the European Commission has promoted the collection of European Good Practices on Circular Economy through the dedicated stakeholders platform.

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