• Circular economy minimises waste and extends product life, decoupling economic growth from resource consumption.
  • Innovative solutions and collaborative efforts are essential for transitioning to sustainable practices in a circular economy.

Everything we need to ensure our survival and well-being depends on the natural environment and the Earth is buckling under humanity's insatiable demand for natural resources. We have long recognised that this linear or 'take-make-consume-throw away' process, multiplied by the millions across the many industries in operation today is unsustainable. Experts say that our current way of living not only generates too much waste but also uses 60% more resources than the Earth can provide.

Paula Sng, Senior Manager of Innovation & Technology, says, “Continuing down this path will inevitably lead to disastrous consequences for mankind and endanger our continued survival. This is where the circular economy can help set humanity's course back on track towards a brighter future. By transforming our throwaway economy into a circular one, we effectively eradicate the notion of waste and reduce pollution.”

Defining the Circular Economy

The circular economy is a system that operates on three core principles that redefine our approach to production and consumption:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution.
  • Circulate raw materials and finished products.
  • Regenerate the nature that provides.

In this economy, products and materials are circulated via reuse, refurbishment, recycling, remanufacturing, maintenance, and composting. The circular economy contributes significantly to combating global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss by decoupling economic activities from the consumption of finite resources.

This continuous or 'circular' flow of materials in the circular economy consists of two main cycles: biological and technical cycles. In the biological cycle, biodegradable materials are broken down into their base nutrients, which are returned to the Earth to regenerate nature. On the other hand, the technical cycle keeps products and materials in circulation through various processes that repurpose them for new applications.

How Does a Circular Economy Contribute to Sustainability?

It is important to know that while a circular economy and sustainability are somewhat related, they are two distinct concepts. The circular economy is a specific framework designed to promote sustainability by focusing on closing the loop of resource use in economic activities, whereas sustainability serves as an overarching concept that involves a wide range of practices aims to achieve a balanced ecosystem supporting economic stability and improving quality of life.

  1. Resource conservation and waste reduction

    Sustainability is defined as the ability to support or maintain a process continuously over time and support the needs of current and future generations. This commitment inherently requires the conservation and optimisation of all resources by advocating for the reuse of products. Adopting a circular economy by leveraging new and innovative solutions discovered through technology scouting is key to maximising the utility of products throughput and beyond their lifecycle, ensuring the materials are repurposed rather than discarded.  

    For instance, plastic products like single-use bags and bottles can now get a second life instead of being thrown away thanks to modern chemical recycling technologies like depolymerisation, gasification, and pyrolysis. Depolymerisation, in particular, is an excellent plastic recycling process that is highly effective at breaking down plastic polymers into their monomer units, which can then be used to manufacture new plastic products.
  2. Lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

    A circular economy inherently lowers GHG emissions through its wide range of practices that include waste mitigation, resource recovery and product reuse. For example, by extending the life of products and eliminating their need for disposal, less waste is sent to incinerators or landfills, which reduces the GHG emissions associated with waste management. Moreover, promoting the use of recycled materials and implementing efficient recycling processes diminish the demand for virgin resources, which involves high energy consumption and GHG emissions that stem from its extraction, refining, and transportation.

    This innovative approach by a Singapore-based researcher exemplifies a significant advancement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using a synthesis process to create green plastics from carbon dioxide and renewable feedstocks. This method not only provides a valuable use for CO2, often seen as a waste product and major greenhouse gas contributor, but also reduces reliance on fossil fuels for plastic production.
  3. Economic resilience

    The practice of closing resource loops in a circular economy plays a pivotal role in enhancing social-ecological resilience by cutting down the need for virgin materials as well as the emissions and waste generated by industrial systems below the assimilative capacity of ecosystems. Similarly, the collective pursuit of better resource efficiency can improve industry resilience by reducing the dependence on natural resources and preventing material supply shortages.

    The advancement of technologies like the eco-friendly direct conversion of biogas into liquid fuels, curated by IPI Singapore, contributes significantly to economic resilience within a circular economy framework. By converting biogas into liquid fuels using environmentally friendly methods, such as catalytic processes or biochemical transformations, this technology addresses multiple challenges simultaneously. It reduces the reliance on fossil fuels, mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, and utilises waste streams effectively, aligning with the principles of resource efficiency and closed-loop systems.
  4. Improved product design

    Improved product design is among the cornerstones that enable resource conservation and waste reduction in a circular economy. These improvements will generally focus on making products easy to disassemble and recycle. Furthermore, they could be designed to use less raw materials or capital equipment to facilitate repairability, refurbishment, or modularity.

    In particular, sustainable eco-designed flexible packaging (SEFP) has emerged as a crucial element in fostering a circular economy, where resource conservation and waste reduction are paramount. SEFP integrates principles such as minimalism, material efficiency, and recyclability. By using less raw material and optimising the packaging's design, SEFP reduces environmental impact without compromising functionality or protection.
  5. Performance economy

    Walter Stahel was the one who first envisioned a closed-circle economy that included the principles of waste prevention, product repair, and life extension. Selling services instead of products is a core part of his thinking, which leads to the concept of the performance economy, where people pay for the performance of a product. This useful tool for the functional service economy of the future also:
  • Introduces business models that leverage knowledge to improve performance, create more jobs, and generate greater wealth.
  • Shows how innovations in traditional industries can preserve embodied resources and create skilled and manual jobs, resulting in less waste, reduced energy consumption, and greatly reduced resource throughput, which are the key ingredients for economic growth.

In summary, the shift from a linear to a circular approach does more than reduce waste and lower greenhouse gas emissions, it promotes a systemic approach to optimising resource use, resource management, and extending product life cycles. By implementing sustainable practices throughout the entire value chain, we can build a foundation for a resilient, sustainable future that benefits businesses, consumers, and the planet alike.

With the ongoing global environmental challenges, the circular economy offers a beacon of hope and illuminating the path forward. Innovation, particularly through the adoption of cutting-edge technologies, is fundamental for organisations to overcome contemporary challenges and advance in these circular and sustainable practices.

With IPI's Open Innovation services, the pathway to these transformative solutions is streamlined, accelerating the development and refinement of products, business models, and organisational competencies. Together, we unveil and harness the profound connections between a circular economy and sustainability, paving the way for a thriving and sustainable future.

To explore how these technologies can be integrated into your operations for enhanced sustainability and drive business growth, reach out to us today.