A global vision of the future: The Circular Economy and its importance in different countries
In a world with growing challenges and risks, the Circular Economy (CE) is a groundbreaking concept for the 21st century. It stands for a comprehensive vision of sustainable production and consumption that counters the mentality of "take-use-throw away" with a circular perspective.
Sustainable product design includes resource efficient production using environmentally friendly materials and enables a long service life, which is additionally extended by repair and remanufacturing. At the end of the product's life, the materials used are fed back into a cycle for example through recycling.
A striking example of the global significance of the Circular Economy is the recently launched research project Circularity³, in which Fraunhofer ISI, together with project partners from Germany, Türkiye, Taiwan, Japan and Thailand, is researching the opportunities of the Circular Economy from the micro to the macro level. The project bridges fourteen time zones where the concept of CE meets different national contexts.
We asked our project partners about the perception and relevance of the circular economy in their countries. In this article, we share their insights.
Circular Economy: More than just recycling
The design of a circular economy can target different phases of a product's life: production, use or end-of-life. Pei Chiun Li, a researcher at National Taiwan University, sees CE as a way for Taiwan to achieve resource efficient production: "As an island with limited resources, Taiwan's future opportunities lie in improving resource efficiency. Implementing a circular economy can be one solution for Taiwan." He adds, "The ongoing strategies in Taiwan include improving the waste management system for a community with zero waste, advancing innovative green technologies for an effective recycling system, and developing industrial symbiosis for resource sharing and synergy."
In Japan, Mitsutaka Matsumoto, Senior Researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), notes a shift in the perception of the Circular Economy: "The primary means of promoting the circular economy has been recycling, but in recent years the focus is extending to the value retention processes such as reuse, refurbishment, and remanufacturing."
For Germany, Antonia Loibl, researcher at Fraunhofer ISI, emphasises the importance of measures to avoid production by changing consumption and use patterns: "Our research results for Germany show that the greatest potential for reducing material consumption can be tapped through avoidance measures and extending product lifetimes."
The importance of the Circular Economy worldwide
In an economic setting increasingly characterised by climate crisis, biodiversity loss, geopolitical risks and shocks in value chains, the Circular Economy has become a key building block for sustainable development. Aksornchan Chaianong, a researcher from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, underlines the importance for achieving climate goals in Thailand: "Thailand is committed to achieving the ambitious climate goal of net zero emissions by 2065. Relevant stakeholders play significant roles in identifying holistic solutions to this commitment, including transitioning from a linear to a circular economy." She adds, "The Circular Economy is not only the answer to protect the environment but also to help drive the socio-economic transition and create innovation in Thailand."
In addition to the island's limited resources, Pei Chiun Li also describes the importance of CE for sustainable transformation in Taiwan: "By practicing the circular economy, Taiwan can transition to a society of sustainable consumption and production."
Mitsutaka Matsumoto highlights the aspect of resource security for Japan: "As a resource-constrained nation, Japan aims to address sustainable material supplies and waste reduction by adopting a circular economy." He continues, "A circular economy can support Japan's resilience by reducing supply chain vulnerabilities and creating new economic opportunities by developing innovative technologies and businesses."
Antonia Loibl states the importance of CE to reduce resource use: "The resource consumption in Germany is breaching planetary boundaries. An average per capita raw material consumption of 16 tonnes per year is not future-proof in any way. The Circular Economy represents a promising way to substantially reduce material use and decrease dependence on finite resources."
It is time to overcome the linear mindset and close loops around the world. The Circular Economy implies an economy that recognises ecological limits. Researching it plays a central role in understanding potentials, recognising limits and tailoring implementation to individual countries. In the Circularity³ research project, scientists from five countries are working together on these challenges since June 2023 in order to develop specific advice for a successful implementation of the Circular Economy.