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SUSTAINABILITY | 25.06.2021

Circular economy in the industrial sector, a stride forward in the fight against climate change?

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With Industry 4.0 becoming increasingly widespread, work is underway to transform a sector that has traditionally been highly polluting.

As the European Union explains on its website “the circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible, (…) thereby creating further value.” “In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.”

This method of reducing waste to a minimum is the path we must take in order to curb the deterioration of the environment and to minimize the damage that climate change is causing and will continue to cause to ecosystems around the world. One area where a great deal of effort is being made is in the industrial sector which, thanks to new technologies, is investing in the transition from a traditional, linear economic model toward a circular economy that not only creates less pollution but also makes processes more efficient and cost-effective.

Saying goodbye to factory chimneys

Perhaps the first step is to banish the typical image of smoky factories capable of polluting everything in their vicinity due to their greenhouse gas emissions and the constant generation of waste that is not properly treated.

Fortunately, industrial processes are changing and turning to a new concept, one that must be long-lasting, that introduces a more environmentally conscious vision into our collective mindset.

This concept has been dubbed Industry 4.0, and it will play a pivotal role in the circular economy — in other words, a model whereby we make the absolute most of our resources and seek to reduce production to the bare minimum. This involves reusing and recycling components as well as using biodegradable materials and renewable energy sources. In that context, as we will discuss further on, one trend is the creation of industrial sites built around circular economy processes, featuring solar panel installations to generate electricity.

This will undoubtedly be a revolutionary change that must be supported by governments and international institutions, especially as many countries whose economies are currently taking off are unlikely to want to prioritize transitioning their industrial sector toward a model centered around caring for the environment.

Advantages of the circular economy for industry

In short, companies will reap the following key benefits by adopting processes to create a circular economy:

  • More efficient use of products and materials, resulting in greater cost savings.
  • A considerable reduction in pollution through recycling and reusing materials as well as using renewable energies.
  • Better stock management with regard to the various components required for industrial activity.
  • Being at the forefront of a process that is going to be implemented sooner or later. It should come as no surprise that this is included in the 2030 Agenda. Therefore, while choosing another model may lead to good results in the short-term, it will lead to setbacks in the medium- to long-term.
  • Another issue to be added to the mix is the reputation of companies in the industrial sector. It has been shown that consumers are increasingly concerned about how the products they consume are manufactured. Therefore, companies that show respect for the environment and commitment to a circular model will also benefit from an improved reputation, making this an excellent CSR action.

In this regard, CESVIrecambios, which is CESVIMAP‘s Authorized Treatment Facility for end-of-life vehicles, recovers materials from cars that have been written off, including steel (which currently makes up the majority of the total weight), aluminum, plastics, copper, glass wiring, and others — all materials that can be reused for many industrial purposes. CESVIrecambios also decontaminates hazardous components such as batteries and vehicle fluids.

As an exercise in circular economy and citizen empowerment (granting the “right to repair”), it enables a second life cycle for more than1.5 million parts, offering individuals and workshops a supply of quality spare parts at a good price and under guarantee. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended. Reusing parts for their originally designed purpose helps reduce their environmental impact, keeping waste to a minimum.

What is industrial symbiosis?

The circular economy has had a presence in the industrial sector for some years, especially in the European arena, where the European Commission has repeatedly spoken of Industrial Symbiosis. This term refers to a sustainable and integrated system in which underused resources must be fully utilized.

Another initiative being advocated is to find synergies with other companies that operate nearby, to development innovative products, services and solutions. As the European Union explains in the “Eco-innovation at the heart of European policies” section of its official website, “Industrial symbiosis is the use by one company or sector of by-products, including energy, water, logistics and materials, from another. It also points out that, “in a developed economy with many industrial activities, many different by-products are generated, and the range of potential uses for them can be equally diverse.”

Applying technology is the key to Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 and the implementation of processes that create a circular economy is only possible thanks to the inrush of new technologies. Without the help of technology, it would be impossible to gain complete control of each of the processes that are necessary for the change to take place.

This is the case with big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things and robotics (key to eliminating human error). Thanks to all of this, industry has taken a major stride forward, enabling machines to communicate with each other and comprehensively analyze all the information collected. This, combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, means that circular economy initiatives can be undertaken with the conviction that the change will be successful.

Where do we apply the circular economy?

The circular economy refers not only to production processes themselves, but also to the facilities in which they take place. “As well as being directly linked to the 2030 Agenda, it should be noted that this is an ambitious objective which should be an aspiration not only for individual industrial facilities, but also industrial estates and business parks. These are spaces where all kinds of activities are concentrated, many of which are interlinked, allowing them to collaborate in promoting energy self-sufficiency, recycling and communal use of some infrastructures and connections,” explained Eduardo Francisco Vílchez, Dean of the Colegio de Ingenieros Técnicos de Obras Públicas in the Alicante area, in an article published by Alicante’s Información newspaper.

Vílchez pointed out the trend that is becoming increasingly prevalent and whose future will depend on us achieving the objectives of economic saving, care for the environmental and responsible consumption that are characteristic of the future world. In other words, the circular economy is the path to stopping climate change and changing the concept of industry forever.