In the past, excessive consumption, wanton mining, indiscrete manufacturing, and careless abandonment of wastes, led to the rapid depletion of natural resources. Now, the pursuit of a circular economy, with the goal of zero waste through recycling of resources, is being implemented in an attempt to solve environmental problems.
A circular economy has been the trend over the past ten years, and the economic structure is centered on natural resources. A circular economy refers to meeting demand changes while at the same time reducing waste of limited resources. In contrast to the end-of-life concept for products in a linear economy, the circular economy emphasizes recycling, the use of renewable energy resources, the refusal to use toxic chemicals that hinder the environment, and the redesigning of materials, products, and business models to eliminate waste and enable more efficient use of resources.
A “circular economy” redefines products and services by designing an industrial system that recovers and reproduces materials, and replaces the end-of-the-life cycle with recycling. At the same time, a circular economy minimizes the negative impact of waste on the environment.
Reducing resource consumption and waste are goals of the circular economy. Also, marine waste caused by disposable plastic waste products, as well as the plastic particles that result from these wastes, pose major environmental problems that need to be solved. About 300 million tons of plastic waste are generated every year worldwide, and only 12% is recycled. Although the plastic recycling rate in Taiwan is about 30%, the current recycling technology still uses mainly physical recycling methods like sorting, cleaning, crushing, pelletizing, and reprocessing of materials into new products. Physical recycling technology has its limitations. Due to the deterioration of the plastic, most collected plastics can only be made into black products; products with a reduced level of quality. If waste plastic containers are mixed, it is not easy to effectively sort them and they cannot be used.
Plastic recycling technology is making great progress. In the next 10 years, waste treatment technology will gradually be transformed. Technological breakthroughs will lead to the development of recyclable plastics, bio-plastics, and new raw materials of high-value. Mainstream plastics will be both practical and environmentally friendly.
In terms of waste plastic treatment technology, chemical recycling has become the latest trend. Through chemical depolymerization, impurities and coloring materials in the plastic are removed, and the plastic is converted into monomers or oligomer materials, and then re-polymerized into new plastic materials.
Waste plastics must be properly handled, and new plastic products must be made with proper materials to achieve the goal of zero waste. The development of marine decomposable plastics will be a technology with great potential. Due to the low temperature of seawater and the difference in decomposition environments, it is more difficult for the ocean to decompose plastics.
The importance of a circular economy
With limited energy resources and sustained economic development, countries compete fiercely for resources such as energy and minerals. The current economic development model excessively consumes resources and produces large amounts of waste. The global consumption of raw materials has continued to increase over the past 40 years. According to the data of about 150 countries studied by the International Environmental Think Tank Global Ecological Footprint Network, from 1961 to 2013, if a country's ecological footprint exceeded its biological capacity (the degree of burden on nature), it was considered to have an ecological deficit. If the current standard of living is maintained till 2030, humanity's demand for resources would create an ecological footprint that would require two times the earths present resources.
In recent years, all countries have attached importance to the issue of a circular economy and actively promoted it as a means of promoting industrial development, coping with a scarcity of resources, and reducing environmental impacts. Taiwan’s lack of natural resources, coupled with its small land area and large population, has had a heavy environmental impact. With a high degree of dependence on imported energy resources, there is an urgent need to break through resource constraints and increase resource productivity by promoting a circular economy.
The new business model under a circular economy
The new business model of the circular economy is not just about waste recycling and reuse, but is about redefining waste, redesigning products and processes, changing consumer habits, and using new technologies to bring resources, raw materials, and waste back to the industry chain. Innovative business models that are different from the traditional model of continuous consumption of raw materials need to be developed in order to greatly reduce energy and resource consumption and waste generation.
Recycling resource supply mode:
The recycling resource supply model refers to the recycling of the entire production and consumption system. It is a system designed to completely renew, recycle, or recover materials. Companies can use this model to replace linear resource consumption, reduce the use of scarce resources, reduce resource waste, and improve resource use efficiency.
Resource recycling mode:
This model mainly refers to when a product goes through its life cycle to its end, and then goes through innovative recycling or upgrading to re-create new value. The traditional resource recycling method recycles product waste to obtain the same or higher value. Resource recycling not only involves recycling final items but can extended to industrial symbiosis and energy resource integration as well. Especially for companies that produce large amounts of by-products or waste, the cradle-to-cradle cycle can enable them to reduce waste generation, reduce costs, and maximize the economic benefits of recycling.
Product life extension mode:
The product life extension model is to extend the life cycle of products or assets through maintenance, upgrades, remanufacturing, and resales, so that companies can maintain long-term economic benefits, and upgrade product-specific functions and parts to improve product performance.
Shared platform mode:
The purpose is to make full use of resources. The so-called sharing refers to the concept of using idle resources to the extreme; the so-called platform is a bridge between resource providers and resource demanders. The combination of the two can promote the sharing and use of resources and products between individuals or organizations, reduce resource waste so that resources can be recycled and reused, helping to share products with overcapacity and underutilization, increase the value of resource recycling, and maximize the overall utility change.
Product as a service model:
The product-as-a-service model is renting instead of buying, changing the current trading logic. The product is leased by one or more customers or the concept of user payment is adopted. Providing products with better durability and offering upgrading, encourages customers to give up the original concept of ownership of items. By selling services instead of selling products, companies can make products that last longer. Product durability and failure rate is no longer a risk to consumers. Consumers can also promote a circular economy. This way enterprises are more willing to manufacture durable products and are more willing to recycle and reuse them.
With the evolution of the concept of a circular economy, development opportunities and fields have become more diversified. In the future, in addition to maintaining the existing foundations for resource recovery, waste reduction, and promotion of energy resource integration, the industrial chain, technical standards, social resources, and government policies should be combined with the sustainable development of innovative thinking of a circular economy. With the breakthrough of a circular economy, we have constructed a path for development. With the adoption of innovative business models, a sharing economy, circular agriculture, and other operation modes, we have entered a new era of the circular economy, further expanding industrial development and environmental protection.