Written by Mathieu Xhonneux
The world produces more than 2 billion tonnes of waste per year, and global waste generation is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes per year by 2050 . Unfortunately, only about 20% of this waste is recycled globally , with the rest either being landfilled, burned for energy recovery, or sometimes even dumped in developing countries. Yet, countries are starting to rise to this global challenge. In Europe, the European Parliament recently passed a law prohibiting waste shipments for disposal outside the EU, highlighting the need for countries and companies worldwide to take responsibility for their waste management and recycling practices . In South Africa, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations in enforce companies to take responsibility for the waste they generate . These new legislations translate into a concrete call to action to transition their activities into a more circular economy.
As opposed to our current “take-make-dispose” linear model, the founding idea of circular economy is to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times . Circular economies avoid generating excessive waste and strive for a “restorative use” of resources. Used materials should not be burned or landfilled, but re-integrated into the value chains of new products. Goods should be designed to achieve longer lifetimes, thanks to strategies such as reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling. Simply put, the concept of circular economy encourages all participants of an economy to engage in a more environmentally friendly use of natural resources.
Nevertheless, transitioning existing businesses and activities to sustainable circular strategies remains easier said than done. Many challenges directly come to mind: entire value chains have to be redesigned, different stakeholders (suppliers, clients, regulators, …) need to be aligned, innovative recycling technologies should be deployed, competitivity must be ensured, … On top of all these issues, when designing circular strategies, one must also pay attention not to fall into a naïve understanding of what “closing the loop” implies . In particular, an optimal circular strategy should not focus solely on specific physical resources (such as plastics), but should rather follow a holistic perspective that encompasses all relevant resources and possible kinds of environmental impacts.
At BrightWolves, we firmly believe that every company committed to sustainability should engage in a life-cycle analysis (LCA) of its activities. LCA is a science-based method for assessing the environmental impacts associated with a given product, over its entire life cycle. To obtain an accurate impact assessment, LCA practitioners create an inventory of the resources used and pollutants generated during the manufacturing, usage and end-of-life stages of a product. Thanks to its holistic approach, LCA provides various environmental insights over the entire value chain (GHG emissions, water usage, ecotoxicity, land use, ...). Instead of narrowly targeting the circularity of a specific resource, LCA yields a complete diagnosis and allows decision-makers to focus on the main environmental hotspots inside their operations.
For a client active in the agri-food sector, BrightWolves recently carried out an LCA on the production of a transformed product. Whereas our client initially had concerns about the packaging around its product, our LCA results demonstrated that the sourcing of a specific ingredient was actually dominating its overall environmental footprint. Using this quantitative data, we could both brief our client on the environmental hotspots inside its value chain, and provide several practical recommendations to effectively decrease the footprint of his product.
The LCA methodology, standardized in the ISO 14040 series, is applicable to any industry or sector. Is your company also planning to implement circular strategies, but lacks insight on how to do design them? Do you need science-based data to comprehend the environmental footprint of your value chain?
 The World Bank (2018). Global Waste to Grow by 70 Percent by 2050 Unless Urgent Action is Taken: World Bank Report. Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/09/20/global-waste-to-grow-by-70-percent-by-2050-unless-urgent-action-is-taken-world-bank-report
 Statista (2023). Global waste generation - statistics & facts. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/topics/4983/waste-generation-worldwide/#topicOverview
 Euractiv, « Parliament backs export ban on all waste destined for disposal », https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/parliament-backs-export-ban-on-all-waste-destined-for-disposal/ , consulted on 24/01/2023
 Plastics SA, « Extended Producer Responsibility – creating a true circular economy for plastics packaging», https://www.plasticsinfo.co.za/sustainability/extended-producer-responsibility/ , consulted on 6/04/2023
 Geisendorf, S., & Pietrulla, F. (2018). The circular economy and circular economic concepts—a literature analysis and redefinition. Thunderbird International Business Review, 60(5), 771-782.
 Peña, C., Civit, B., Gallego-Schmid, A., Druckman, A., Pires, A. C., Weidema, B., ... & Motta, W. (2021). Using life cycle assessment to achieve a circular economy. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 26, 215-220.