Ashley Brinson on The Circular Economy

As a first year chemical engineer, Professor Rousseau taught me the first and most fundamental law of chemical engineering: mass in minus mass out equals accumulation.  Chemical engineers and indeed all industrial engineers from the 20th century have created a problem that I call the Accumulation Problem.

We are constantly accumulating waste. Electronic waste accumulates in the laneways behind our offices.  The production process is linear as we extract raw materials, build parts, assemble machines, sell to consumers and then landfill obsolescent goods.  The profitability equations are also linear such that to increase sales revenue requires more raw material extraction, faster product redesign cycles, and in turn faster product obsolescence.  Increased profit is correlated to increased extraction and more landfill waste.

Plastics that were engineered for the remarkable chemical stability of their polymer molecules are accumulating in our oceans and on our beaches. In an often-cited statistic, the rate of plastic accumulation in the oceans will lead to a day in the middle of the century when the mass of all the plastic in the oceans is greater than the mass of the fish.  The Accumulation Problem is real.

The Circular Economy is an idea that the linear process should be turned into a cycle of distribution, use, re-use, repair, collection, sorting, and recycling.  But this is much more than just recycling. It requires a fundamental re-design of our products and production processes. The concepts are fuzzy and emerging. This diagram is one conception of the Circular Economy.


The Figure Eight diagram below is another conception that imagines a separate biosphere of agriculture, fresh water systems, sanitary waste and fertilisers connected to industrial biosphere of processes that produce energy, use water, produce chemicals and manufacture goods in urban, suburban and industrial land use environments.

Within these conceptualisations, recurrent themes broadly define the Circular Economy.  The Re-Manufacturing Economy refurbishes, upgrades and re-deploys used goods. Instead of owning the Xerox photocopier, hardware is serviced continuously by the copier company. Instead of purchasing consumable ink cartridges, the contract supplies photocopies on demand at a variable cost.  Ownership transforms towards a services orientation. New business models of the Share Economy are increasingly relevant and visible in modern cities. Why buy a car when you can call a taxi? Why dedicate capital funds to a yellow-painted taxicab if car owners share their capital with paying users on Uber, Lyft, Ola or if drivers share in Car-Next-Door or GoGet? Reddy Go, oBike, MoBike and Lime use mobile phone apps to enable on-demand use of dockless bicycles and e-bikes. Local manufacturing, local remanufacturing, distributed manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, and local food production are themes within the broader Circular Economy discussion.

The first step is industrial aggregation. From head to tail, in the bio and techno-spheres, integrated suppliers and consumers co-locate to gain economies of scope and economies of scale in materials and energy efficiency.

Think about this example. In Denmark, The Kalundorg Eco-Industrial Park developed a 1.5GW coal fired power plant which supplies electricity and steam. Statoil Petroleum Refinery supplies natural gas and uses waste steam for its reboilers. Pharmaceutical supplier Novo Nordisk integrates with fresh water fish farms, yeast processing and City of Kalundborg sanitary waste water processing to supply fertiliser sludge to offsite agricultural users.  

Gyproc is integrated with the coal fired power station, and fly ash from the power station feeds an Eco Park Portland cement manufacturer. Elements of head-to-tail recycling are being tested in Australia, but the scale of Kalundborg’s industrial integration is far beyond domestic Australian industrial co-location and integration.

Professor Ali Abbas at the University of Sydney School of Chemical Engineering has demonstrated a coal fly ash cement technology that incorporates flue gas carbon dioxide into cement carbonates to reduce CO2 emissions yielding cement with compressive strength substantially equivalent to conventional cement kiln products. Last weekend Ali hosted the Australian Circular Economy Conference at Kooindah Waters, Central Coast NSW.  Nanyang Technology University Singapore, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, University of California-Santa Barbara and UTS participated. The NSW Dept of Industry, IChemE and Engineers Australia participated. The World Economic Forum Beijing and from industry Suez, Downer and Dow Chemical participated. Ali shared new insights with me Monday after the conference: “Ashley it’s not just recycling. We’ve got to redesign EVERYTHING.  Everything you see around us, it ALL has to be re-designed. The technical discussion in Australia must shift from just recycling to design, Advanced Manufacturing, longevity, re-use and re-purposing.”

It’s not enough just to recycle. Advanced manufacturing processes must be designed and developed to produce customised, high-value components.

In Scotland, MacRebur company is replacing petroleum tars in asphalt with pelletised recycled plastic. It’s not just burying plastic into asphalt material. Recycling is necessary, but not sufficient.

Multiple, successive Five Year Plans by China feature increasing commitment to the Circular Economy. Hu Jintao was an electrical engineer. Xi Jinping is a chemical engineer and lawyer. On matters of industrial development, China’s government is an evidence-based, scientifically driven technocracy– a Twitter-free zone without climate change sceptics. When Shanghai bans free plastic shopping bags, the change is immediate, with high compliance, and no turning back. The speed of industrial reform is fast. Integrated industrial aggregation features prominently in the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Ziya Economic Area.

In 2017, China’s National Sword Policy prohibited the import of plastic waste starting in 2018.  That policy has caused shocks in the US, Japan and Germany. Indeed, it has shocked Australia. Plastics are diverting to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, but hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are stranded globally.

Re-design is critical. The economy must be restructured from a linear economy to a Circular Economy as the European Commission Vice President stated in 2015.  Mercedes-Benz, and indeed the whole German manufacturing industry, is redesigning products for maintenance, service, refurbishment, re-manufacturing and redeployment driven by Germany’s famous DIN industrial standards.  Globally, the ISO Standards development are being led by nations adopting the Circular Economy mindset.

The first phase was industrial aggregation. The next two phases are industrial design reform and the transition from product sales towards lease, service and share economy business models. Each year the Warren Centre features a prominent Australian innovator in our Annual Innovation Lecture.  Professor Andrew Harris has developed one of the world’s largest 3D printers, an invention conceived in Australia and deployed in England to produce mass customised wax forms for concrete acoustic tiles in the London Underground. Andrew stands with one foot in industry, leading Laing O’Rourke’s Engineering Excellence playground of new technologies and one foot in academia at the University of Sydney. At our 2017 Innovation Lecture he described how digital design tools yield infinitely and easily customisable production with sensors built into products and infrastructure to allow machine learning and to capitalise on AI efficiencies. The plastic printer car by Local Motors is another example of digital customisation and local manufacturing. Distributed manufacturing and re-manufacturing further enable refurbishment in situ and allow the creation of new share economy and lease business models like photocopier-as-a-service. The Germans believe that jobs displaced by robot factory automation might be supplemented by new labour demand in maintenance and refurbishment.

Apple has a different idea on robotics. On a market capital basis, Apple is the wealthiest company on the planet.  When Tim Cook is not chastising Mark Zuckerberg for breaching your data privacy, he’s talking up sustainable electronics manufacturing. Apple plans to purchase 100% renewable electricity. Its iPhone XR polymers are 32% bioplastic. In May Apple announced co-financing for a zero-carbon aluminium smelting pilot process with Rio Tinto Alcan. With 2billion iOS devices produced, Apple is part of the e-waste accumulation problem, but it is taking strong actions to implement the Circular Economy. In 2016, Apple demonstrated Liam, a robot that disassembles iPhones to recycle parts. Not only robotic factory assembly, but now product disassembly occurs by robots. Liam’s daughter-robot is Daisy, the next generation of iPhone crackers. Daisy is recovering sufficient tin metal that Apple hopes it can close loops and discontinue tin mine extraction in the future.

Presently, the Circular Economy is an idea being formed and promoted for adoption. In the UK, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation catalyses thought leadership in this space. The universities are active here in Sydney, and we observe engagement and aspirations from tech companies like Apple. Ecological cooperation reached an international pinnacle at the 2015 Paris Conference. Perhaps today’s Forum “Towards a prosperous yet sustainable Australia – What now for the Lucky Country?” is an indication that aspirations continue to rise. I see a new convergence of thought occurring that is social, political and tech-led within sustainability. Today’s technologists are politically active, using digital media platforms to influence social attitudes.

At the University of Sydney, Maryanne Large, Andrew Harris and Ron Johnston developed a program called Invent the Future. PhD candidates from the Science, Engineering, Business and Design Faculties collaborate to imagine a new product or service innovation to commercialise. The Biochite / Carapac team developed the bioplastic film in the image below. Company CEO Michelle Demers hopes to sell this plastic made from polymerised, recycled seafood shells to mushroom farmers to displace petroleum plastics in food packaging. It is uncertain whether this type of compostable plastic will succeed in the market. We don’t know if Michelle Demers and her company will succeed at their innovative business venture. But I say strongly that this rising generation carries forward an aspiration to solve the world’s so-called wicked problems inherited from the last century.

Based on solid science and the precautionary principle, a significant, influential segment from the professional technical community sees the impact of the accumulation problems of e-waste and plastics. They use the emerging social-political-technology convergence to influence public opinion and business decisions. On June 8 this year, the Thailand Department of Marine and Coastal Resources uploaded photographs of a whale autopsy onto Facebook. Eighty plastic bags were in the belly of the whale.  Three weeks before McDonald’s USA voted down a proposal to discontinue single-use plastic straws. Four weeks after the incident, Starbucks announced phase out of single use plastics. I call this the David Attenborough effect. Facebook shapes public opinion and business decisions. Mothers and children love whales and that photograph clearly associates plastic bags with death.

The day after that Thai whale incident, my own Facebook feed promoted images of a floating plastic garbage patch at the Dominican Republic in the Carribean. #StrawsSuck began trending. Donald Trump tweets that climate change is a hoax, but a rising generation of young people pushes back in a contest of ideas about the future of the environment.

On November 20, photographs of a 9.5 metre dead whale from Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia were distributed. Six kilograms of plastic from hundreds of plastic cups and plastic bags were in the dead animal’s belly. The cause of death is unknown, but the association of death with plastic is irresistible.

Looking forward, this convergence of social-political and tech factors could yield sufficient alignment to trigger a tipping point towards action. This will be obvious when governments begin to use the words of economists to justify legislation and regulation to implement the Circular Economy. It’s clear that the economic theories from the last century do not adequately describe the situation we see today and the call for action from the public.  Also, governments are massive purchasers in every country’s economy. Secondary materials markets needed for Circular Economies are insufficient for recycled materials.

In October, NSW Government released a Circular Economy Policy Statement. There is progress here in NSW.  In the meantime, plastics are showing up everywhere, and the images we see in the news and on social media frame spoiled natural beauty, ruination of the ocean, and death to fishes. It is a public relations challenge for the plastics industry, but these materials in macro form are not toxic to humans.

However, eroded microplastics are appearing in the human food chain. Table salt from China, fish, saltwater oysters and fresh water mussels have shown microplastics contamination. Strict curb side waste segregation and recycling in Germany is recovering kitchen vegetable and fruit wastes to municipal composting programs, but plastics are entering that compost and appearing in fertiliser supplied to German farms. The latest story from a few weeks ago was a paper presented at a gastroenterology conference, not yet published in a peer reviewed journal. That work included tests from six European countries plus Japan that showed microplastics in human faeces. We are what we eat, and we are eating plastics. I do not know of published studies showing harm from human ingestion of microplastics, but it has been said that plastics might preferentially absorb low concentration organic pollutants like benzenes in the environment, concentrate them due to lipophilic surface attraction and transfer organic pollutants into human food chains. That is speculative, but it is reported…. Watch this space.

In conclusion, there is plenty of evidence to make the case for re-designing industries and products to align towards the Circular Economy. I foresee increasing public opinion alignment towards these possibilities, especially due to the social-political-digital technology influences. Some leading businesses are already re-engineering themselves to align with the aspirations of a new generation of consumers and customers.


This story is featured in the 30 November 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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