Standards for the Circular Economy

Tim Sprinkle

The universal recycling symbol was first introduced on Earth Day in 1970, but it has since become ubiquitous on those blue recycling cans all over the world. With three arrows indicating clockwise motion, it’s a visual representation of the recycling process: Create something, use it, return it to be used again, and repeat the cycle.

For that reason, recycling is the first thing that many people think about when they consider a circular economy. But, in fact, it’s just the beginning. 

Defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a system “that involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative by design,” a circular economy is focused on eliminating waste and optimizing everything from materials to products to systems. As opposed to traditional approaches that see raw materials extracted, made into products, and then discarded after their useful lifespan, a circular approach is designed to reduce material use from the very beginning. With that end goal in mind, manufacturers are designing products to be less resource-intensive, to recapture “waste” throughout the process as a resource to manufacture new products down the road.

READ MORE: Closing the Circle

“A lot of people think of a circular economy as just waste and being able to recycle and reuse things,” says Amy Costello, chair of ASTM International’s committee on sustainability (E60) and product stewardship and sustainability manager at Armstrong World Industries. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s making sure you design products so they can be circular, including everything from making disassembly possible to ensuring that no chemicals are used in production that could be an issue at the back end.”

To start the conversation and bring circular thinking in manufacturing to the forefront, the committee on sustainability recently held a workshop to identify opportunities for new and existing standards related to the circular economy in manufacturing. The result was a roadmap for ASTM technical standards that will eventually help manufacturers improve their own production efficiencies and reduce waste materials – keeping in mind that as much as 80% of the environmental performance and cost of a given product is locked in at the design phase of product development. Companies that aren’t thinking about circularity up front have potentially missed the boat in terms of being able to make an impact. 

“The whole idea behind the circular economy is global,” says KC Morris, E60’s recording secretary and leader of the Life Cycle Engineering Group with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “It’s not being driven by ASTM. We are responding to the need, but there is a lot of work being done even by the U.N. on sustainable development, including several goals that relate directly to manufacturing practices.”

What manufacturers really need at this point, she says, is a better understanding of what they need to do to maintain compliance with these new goals and measure the impact of their existing processes. The industry is currently facing a void in detailed technical specifications that spell out exactly what manufacturers should be collecting and how they should be thinking about sustainability

“ISO has a whole series of standards around things like setting up an environmental management system,” Morris says. “But it remains at the management level. It's not really getting down into the details of the materials you're collecting and how to do that. That's where ASTM has a niche to fill – in these real technical specifications.”

The committee on sustainability already has several standards that address this need, with more in the works:

1) Classification for discarded materials from manufacturing facilities and associated support facilities (E2979)

As a way to classify discarded materials from manufacturing facilities, this standard outlines the location, disposition, and treatment of manufacturing waste to help companies determine how to deal with these outputs. As interest grows around the circular economy, the committee is planning to build out this standard to include more categories of waste and further refinements around the definition of waste.

2) Guide for evaluation of environmental aspects of sustainability of manufacturing processes (E2986)

A standard for implementing a data-driven continuous improvement cycle, E2986 provides guidance for developing manufacturer-specific procedures for evaluating the environmental sustainability performance of manufacturing processes. It’s one of several E60 standards intended to help users model their processes and manage improvements digitally to allow for simpler, faster optimization. 

3) Guide for making sustainability-related chemical selection decisions in the life-cycle of products (E3027)

Designed to help users make decisions about chemical usage throughout the lifecycle of their products, this standard outlines the sustainability factors that manufacturers should consider when comparing alternative chemicals or ingredients in their products.

“The fact is, the circular economy starts with product design,” says Costello. “It should consider a product’s lifecycle impacts from the raw material to the manufacturing processes to the end of life. Understanding how these lifecycle impacts are interconnected and expanding the design process to consider all lifecycle stages is critical. There's a lot of pre-thinking that goes into making sure we can have a circular economy.”

Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has written for Yahoo, The Street, and other websites.

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