Sustainable manufacturing’s impact on the circular economy

The circular economy represents a more sensible approach to production and consumption and sustainable manufacturing can help.

By Nicolle Portilla October 19, 2022
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

Sustainability and responsible production processes represent some of the most pressing challenges currently affecting the manufacturing industry. For decades, companies have produced commodities that – despite their ingenuity and potential to improve people’s lives – come at a significant environmental cost.

Many traditional production processes rely on non-recyclable and non-degradable materials that pollute our oceans and release toxic chemicals into the air and soil. Fortunately, however, the world is waking up to the global impacts of waste. Many CEOs and business leaders are pledging to convert their firms into zero-waste companies. At the same time, over 80% of consumers claim to purchase goods and services from environmentally sustainable sellers.

So, how can manufacturers adopt environmentally responsible production processes and attract conscious consumers? One of the best ways to become a sustainable manufacturer is to learn about the circular economy.

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy represents an approach to production and consumption that rejects the wasteful economic model. Rather than extracting, using and quickly discarding Earth’s precious resources, the circular economy is all about keeping durable, repairable, and reusable products in circulation for as long as possible. This eco-friendly model requires the wholesale re-evaluation of how society works, encouraging people to think carefully about their consumption habits and impact on the environment.

Three principles of the circular economy

There are three main principles to remember when considering how the circular economy works in practice.

1. Design out waste and pollution

Mitigating the amount of waste and pollution generated during manufacturing processes will prevent several ecological problems, including greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of air, land, and water with toxic chemicals. Reducing or even eliminating waste from the supply chain is relatively straightforward for some companies. Simple steps could include switching from plastic packaging to cardboard packaging or sourcing raw materials from local areas requiring minimal transportation. On the other hand, some businesses may need to invest in research to make their production processes and materials less harmful to the environment.

2. Keeping products and materials in circulation

Reusing, recycling, and remanufacturing materials is one of the best ways to reduce our impact on the environment. By keeping products circulating in the economy, we can avoid further extracting precious raw materials such as wood and aluminum.

3. Regenerating natural systems

Finally, the circular economy isn’t just about avoiding harm – it’s about actively improving the environment and addressing the mistakes humanity has already made. Regenerative practices could include rewilding (planting trees) and supporting soil regeneration. As well as being relatively simple to implement, many businesses promote their regeneration efforts as a unique selling point for eco-conscious consumers.

Five ways the circular economy be implemented in manufacturing

Implementing circular economy principles in industry takes time, planning, and investment. However, it will more than pay off in the long term as the world quickly moves to more sustainable practices to help deal with current ecological crises. Here are some of the steps companies can take to make the transition:

1. Develop a comprehensive action plan, including specific goals

A detailed action plan will help build a sustainable business while protecting profits. Key questions to consider include:

  • What are the most wasteful and environmentally harmful aspects of our current supply chain? How can we tackle this waste and pollution?

  • What are our company values, and how will we integrate circular economy principles into our culture?

  • How quickly can we realistically move to more sustainable practices? How will we communicate the plan to staff and consumers?

  • Are there any environmental causes to which we would like to donate?

It may be worth hiring an experienced sustainability officer to conduct research, promote, oversee, and measure the company’s transition to the circular economy. Some large companies may even wish to onboard whole teams of environmental experts. Handing control to a dedicated team of eco-conscious professionals will ensure smooth, swift, and effective transition to the circular economy.

2. Adopt new technologies to reduce energy consumption and manufacturing waste

Many manufacturing firms currently consume significant energy, consequently generating large carbon footprints. Fortunately, new automation technologies can help to streamline production processes, boost productivity, and ultimately reduce energy consumption and costs. Digital technologies can also provide manufacturing firms with a better overview of how their production processes operate, delivering data about energy usage, equipment failures, and more. Organizations can then harness this data to improve equipment maintenance and reduce energy, water, and key raw materials waste.

3. Get on board with renewables

Renewable energy is more affordable than ever before, meaning eco-conscious manufacturing companies should look to make the most of renewable supplies. If possible, it’s also worth considering on-site energy generation using equipment such as wind turbines and solar panels. As well as improving a company’s image, switching to renewables will future-proof the organization against the inevitable phasing out of fossil fuels at some point this century.

4. Team up with eco-friendly partners

Cross-organizational cooperation represents a fundamental part of the circular economy, ensuring businesses have all the knowledge and resources they need to pull off the transition to more sustainable production processes. Teaming up with industry associations, regulators, and other relevant third parties will help businesses learn more about enhancing their manufacturing processes and prove their genuine commitment to eco-friendly practices.

5. Consider remanufacturing

Remanufacturing is a process whereby manufacturers breathe new life into a used product. Key aspects of remanufacturing include disassembling the product to its main components, cleaning and carefully restoring these components, and reassembling the product to its box-fresh state. Remanufacturing helps mitigate environmental pollution and uses up to 90% of the originally recovered materials, meaning it is also very cost-effective.

Now is the time to get involved with the circular economy

As the climate crisis worsens, it is incumbent on all manufacturing companies to protect future generations and improve their production processes. By learning more about the circular economy and adopting its main principles, businesses can ensure the transition is as smooth and successful as possible.

– DEP is a CFE Media and Technology content partner.

Author Bio: Nicolle is Zero Waste’s Social Media Manager, and has been a valued member of the team since July 2018. She is responsible for content creation on all platforms, leveraging creative software, industry trends and research, and social media strategy to build upon the company’s online presence.