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Black, who also advises Fortune 200 companies on how to create waste and recycling strategies, will be discussing the business case for circular economies at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. We caught up with him to get his perspective on how this tool can be a driver for innovation.
What does the term circular economy mean to you?
There’s the theoretical term, which is taking manufactured goods and materials and, after their first use, creating value — hopefully by upcycling them. The practical is a little bit different. It’s far more challenging, especially the upcycling part. It’s hard to take a lot of used materials and create higher value for that material after its first use. Optimally, in the most practical sense, the circular economy is taking those materials and reusing them in a way that they can go on being reused. It’s not just one cycle. There are options for multiple cycles of reuse.
What are the stickiest aspects of upcycling?
Many of the materials that come through are mixed, like plastics. And often, getting that plastic to be used for a higher value than its virgin use is difficult because engineers and people who spec plastic have no idea what’s in that plastic. They’re unwilling to use it for plastic like certain parts of a car body or a healthcare medical device, where they need to know the exact specs. The plastic, because it is mixed, just goes into products as recycled plastic content like bottles, containers, car components with lower tolerances.
The whole concept of plastic being upcycled into something improved at a better level is limited — and often limited by the design. One of the biggest challenges of the circular economy is that the first use of the material is not designed for a second use. Designers still are not considering what happens to their product when it is no longer useful.
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