Resource processing challenges that stand in the way of a circular economy

Sustainable resource processing method can reduce the cost of production, lower greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs

By Shannon Bergstrom November 22, 2021
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Throughout history, most production processes relied on a steady stream of resource processing of raw materials extracted directly from nature. However, those resources are not renewable — at least not as much as we need them to be to sustain the production cycles.

One of the possible solutions to that problem may be found in the model of circular economy, which emphasizes the use of waste materials in the production process. That should effectively reduce the amount of raw materials we need to take from nature and divert most waste from landfills.

But even though that alternative sounds pretty appealing, it’s not without challenges. With that in mind, RTS wanted to talk about some of the resource processing difficulties people might come across in the next two decades as people slowly transition to a circular economy.

The current state of resource processing

The current state of affairs is far from sustainable. According to a recent report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, G20 countries account for about 75% of global resource use and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. In the past three decades, annual material consumption has increased from 37 billion tons in 1990 to 88 billion tons in 2017. Naturally, the countries that are the main drivers of that change should take on the responsibility of pushing for a more resource-efficient economy model.

The report mentioned illustrates the wasteful nature of the past and current production models. However, it also leaves space for a more hopeful future. More than anything else, the document shows that material processing industries need to change as soon as possible.

On the one hand, people need to reconsider the amount of raw resources they’re using during production processes. Then, there’s the question of the methods companies are using to process those materials. It’s not enough to recycle metals, plastics and paper products. Instead, people have to expand their reach by improving processing methods and making them more accessible.

The proposed alternative

As mentioned, the circular economy model aims to close the linear mode of production into a loop. Instead of using new materials from nature, people would simply divert waste materials from landfills to processing plants. Of course, material efficiency strategies don’t begin and end with the production of goods.

Instead, people need to consider their daily use of materials — such as the fuel vehicles use. Until now, many have considered car ownership to be the end goal of a young professional’s life. However, moving toward a more sustainable future would include a move toward ride-sharing practices and using public transportation. So while many usually talk about resource processing in terms of industrial manufacturing cycles, a circular economy would require concessions on an individual level as well.

According to a report from the International Resource Panel, taking steps towards establishing a circular economy would have several positive effects in the long run. For one, doing so would reduce the use of raw natural resources by as much as 28% by 2050. Moreover, it would also result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions. This would naturally affect the planet’s climate as well.

A better way to resource processing

Before anyone can see the benefits of a circular mode of production, they need to implement certain changes on a global scale. The International Resource Panel has long advocated for a complete reimagining of the way we manufacture goods. To do that, we need to change the way we value resources we have already used.

Instead of considering items “spent” once people are done with them, they should make an effort to repair, refurbish and reuse them. When they’re no longer useful to a plant, they should be put back in circulation by donating, selling or recycling them. That should help these objects retain value even when they lose their original purpose. But, establishing the circular economy will take more than individual actions.

Rather, governments and multinational entities alike need to incentivize industries to incorporate those values too. Instead of participating in an endless cycle of resource extraction and waste creation, companies need to invest in recycling. Unfortunately, the main obstacle that stands in the way of achieving that goal is the fact that companies don’t have a reason to transition to sustainable resources.

After all, the extraction of raw materials remains cheap and widely accessible. The use of natural resources is too ingrained in manufacturing processes to disappear with the kind of incentives the EU and other governmental bodies have proposed. With that in mind, people need to make sure manufacturers have easy access to recycled goods.

To that end, recycling needs to be easily available to individuals as well as companies. What’s more, using sustainable resources during the production process needs to be financially accessible to manufacturers.

What makes using sustainable resources economically worthwhile?

As established, the goal of a circular economy is the preservation of natural resources and the elimination of waste. Due to this, people can understand why the industry around resource processing needs to develop quickly.

If manufacturers can choose between raw material extraction and sustainable resources, their decision won’t be based on environmentalism. Rather, they’ll go for the cheaper option. That’s why there are tax benefits for going green — but clearly, those kinds of incentives are still insufficient.

So what can people do to make sure the following two decades bring everyone closer to the circular economic system our planet needs? As individuals, people need to make their voices heard through voting and community organizing. People need to get behind the scientific community, which has been advocating for a transition to sustainable resources for decades.

This move toward a more sustainable future will ultimately reduce the cost of production and lower greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it’ll also create countless jobs. People just have to clear any hurdles that stand in the way of the future everyone deserves.

Author Bio: Shannon Bergstrom is a sustainability operations manager at Recycle Track Systems (RTS), and a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices. RTS is a tech-driven waste and recycling management company.