A triple social, economic and environmental challenge
In general terms, the circular economy means producing goods and services in a sustainable way. With a three-fold objective: to preserve deposits of raw materials, to reduce the impact on the environment and to increase our individual well-being.
“According to the linear model, waste produced is sent to landfill or incineration,” explains Xavier Meyer, Circular Economy Leader at Saint-Gobain Group. “It is a model that wastes a lot of resources, unlike the circular economy, which aims to sharply limit the consumption of raw materials and non-renewable energies.”
In a context of global warming and dwindling resources, the circular economy responds to an environmental, economic and social challenge.
Firstly environmental, because this virtuous economy optimizes management of resources while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.
Secondly economic, because circularity presents new value propositions, based on reuse, for example. Gone are the throwaway society and planned obsolescence. Nowadays we repair and reuse according to a sustainable economy approach. By substituting virgin resources from a finite and exhaustible stock with recycled or bio-sourced raw materials, we reduce the impact of the inescapable and increasingly volatile increase in the cost of raw materials (an increase caused by the depletion of stocks). Secondary raw materials are less volatile and more regionalized and can also help to secure supply chains by reducing the risk of unavailability.
Finally, social, since within countries, the circular economy creates local employment and promotes the emergence of new business opportunities.
Initiatives are flourishing everywhere and demonstrating industry’s ability to embrace a more frugal world. In the construction sector, Weber is working to replace sand with used materials such as foundry sand, demolition aggregates, etc. Cement will soon be made partly from crushed mineral wool or replaced with by-products from the metallurgical industry. Some Saint-Gobain plasterboard factories already use more than 20% recycled gypsum from worksite waste in their products.
Placo®, meanwhile, is continuing its work to reduce the weight of its plasterboards and several countries have lightened their boards by more than 15%, with equivalent performance of course. The same thrift is being displayed by glassmakers, who are making their glass sheets thinner while maintaining the efficiency of the end product. Other manufacturers are developing innovative processes to recover as much of the product's intrinsic value as possible at the end of its life, including the French company Michelin, which processes its used tires by pyrolysis to produce a high-quality liquid fuel.
Strengthening regulations to help the circular transition
Yet despite all these good intentions on the part of industrial companies, the path to circularity sometimes seems a long one. Why? Simply because “thinking circular” requires a profound transformation in the way we innovate, produce, consume and manage products’ end-of-life. But also because the virgin raw material is frequently cheaper than the secondary material. This is due to the low cost and ease of landfilling in many countries. In the construction sector, accelerating and promoting deconstruction, rather than demolition, and encouraging sustainable market trends, such as lightweight construction solutions that consume fewer resources, are all means of promoting a circular economy. Given the wide diversity of regulations, “substitute resources” are managed at a national, regional or territorial level. For an international group, the issue will therefore be doubly complex in terms of legislation and practices, with each country imposing its own rules.