During the second half of the 20th century, awareness increased in relation to the negative impacts generated by human activities: raw materials are not unlimited, and the ecosystem can’t absorb an endless amount of pollutants, conditions that led to the rise of environmental damage.
The energetic crisis of the present day, related to the depletion of fossil fuel reserves and the rising global warming, resulted in the need to have complete energy independence and to develop efficient systems to support climate change mitigation actions. Energy systems and everyday goods are strictly necessary in the daily activities of every human being, but their production processes and their use can cause severe impacts on human health, ecosystems, and natural resources. For this reason, it is essential to have an instrument, such as Life Cycle Assessment, able to evaluate the potential impact of the entire life of those products, from cradle to grave, and to spread policies focused on reuse and recycling .
A Relevant Tool: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Life Cycle Assessment is a methodology defined by the international standards ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, which considers the environmental aspects and impacts of a product system during its entire life cycle, from cradle, which consists in the extraction of raw materials, to grave, thus the end of life and final disposal.
It is a relevant and important instrument used for the evaluation of the environmental impact of a product, a process of a service: in fact, it relates the material and energetic flows of each step contained in the system boundaries into an environmental impact expressed in function of an impact category and with a certain unit of measurement.
A Relevant Approach: Circular Economy (CE)
The concept of circular economy goes beyond waste reduction, and it is important to maintain the different businesses while decreasing the risk of depleting the natural resources and, as a consequence, compromising the welfare and sustainability of future generations. Repair, remanufacture, reuse, and recycling processes can slow down or reduce additional negative value creation: they can minimize further degradation or dissipation of environmental, economic, social, and technical values.
There are no coherent approaches that can be related to the lack of a widely accepted definition of CE: this concept is applied differently by the multiple stakeholders involved in the value chain, and it is often contingent to their interests and value. Thus, does not exist a unique definition of Circular Economy, which can include reducing consumption, improving the production efficiency, introducing materials recycling and reuse, introducing new business models geared at waste prevention.
The Circular Economy, in practice, has the main objective of reducing waste to a minimum and this is a departure from the linear economic model, which is the traditional one from the Industrial Revolution, and it is based on a take-make-consume-throw away pattern. The circular model, as defined by Stahel, is a Cradle-to-Cradle system, unlike the linear one that is the Cradle-to-Grave system.
There are some problems and barriers to the realization of the circular economy: they can be practical, e.g., the network or supply chain for disassembled products and components and recycled materials is not yet established, or can be perceptual because there is a common belief that remanufactured parts and recycled materials are inferior to virgin materials; furthermore, nowadays the majority of items were not designed to be recycled and consequently the treatments to regenerate them can damage the material and the costs are pretty high .
Real Industrial Applications
Hopefully, there are companies that care about environmental issues and are at the forefront of the circular economy application. On the contrary, it seems to me that the performance of life cycle assessment studies is not yet widespread, even though some companies are moving in this direction.
A virtuous example is F3nice, a company that produces metallic powder for additive manufacturing starting from metal scrap and exhausted powder. To me, this is a perfect application of what circular economy means: give a second life to those materials that, otherwise, would be considered wastes. Moreover, many LCA analysis have been run and the differences between the conventional and the innovative method for the powder production are notable.
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