Processing and recycling in the context of a sustainable circular economy

  People separate garbage Copyright: © Peter Winandy

Global consumption of raw materials continues to rise - and with it the environmental impact. Around half of global climate-damaging emissions can be traced back to the extraction and processing of raw materials. The urgency of transitioning global economies toward sustainable development is particularly evident in accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss. The growing consumption of raw materials also has economic consequences, such as increasing shortages and supply uncertainties.

How can this trend be stopped? Technological solutions alone will not be enough; rather, efficiency is tied to the existing production and consumption system of the consumer society. A holistic change in the system, such as structural changes in consumption patterns and a transition to circular flows of raw materials, is needed. The Circular Economy, usually translated as "circular economy," represents an overarching concept for this. It considers the entire societal metabolism and combines it with a life-cycle approach at the product level. Raw materials and materials should thus be kept in the economic cycle and waste, including emissions, avoided. The aim is to reduce the use of raw materials, slow down the consumption of raw materials and extend the useful life of both raw materials and materials, and thus close raw material cycles wherever possible. The end-of-life point in the life cycle of products determines whether it is possible to reuse products or product parts or to recycle materials or raw materials. The necessary conditions for this are already created during product development. The interaction of the individual life cycle phases is essential for successful recycling. Despite having entered the political agenda, Germany and Europe are still a long way from actually implementing the Circular Economy: raw material consumption remains at a high level and the return of recycled raw materials to the economic cycle is currently only 12 percent. Product development must therefore be better adapted to the objectives of the Circular Economy. At the same time, with regard to the current return flow of materials, there is a lack of innovative (technical) solutions for end-of-life strategies.

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