The vocabulary of bio-based products has been defined in EN 16575:2014. This terminology must be revisited to build a basis for product design criteria in a bio-based economy, and also complement the aspirations of a circular economy. A circular economy has been proposed by the European Commission as a means of achieving a resource efficient European economic area [31
]. The basic premise of a circular economy is that materials are made from renewable and secondary materials without unnecessary waste. Instead of waste, new feedstocks are generated at the end of a product’s useful lifetime from materials that might have traditionally been sent to landfill. Legislative proposals are focused on reducing waste and pollution, as well as their complementarity with the resource focused initiatives of the bio-based economy (Figure 3
One key aspect of a circular economy is that it is not achieved simply by increasing recycling rates. It is a misconception to think that simply by increasing the capacity of recycling plants, coupled with more effective recovery of recyclable materials, complete recycling of waste streams will be accomplished. Even for seemingly simple examples of plastic packaging, recycling (especially of domestic waste) is marred by difficulties with separation and (for example, food) contamination. In these instances the sorting and cleaning effort is not always compensated by the reduction in primary product manufacture that recycling provides. Cost benefit analyses show optimum plastic packaging recycling rates are limited to, at best, little more than 50% [33
]. This means half of plastic packaging is either (i) designed in such a way that makes recycling difficult; (ii) ends up in complex mixed waste streams from which it cannot be recovered; (iii) is contaminated beyond recovery; or (iv) is made of low market volume materials meaning the recyclate market is also small, with insufficient economic benefit to encourage recycling. Prior to 2014, discussions on the economic benefits to recycling were stronger in what was a high price crude oil market [34
]. Now, writing in 2016, at a time of relatively cheap crude oil and natural gas [35
], the flexible plastic materials that end up in mixed wastes are considered to be unattractive recyclates because of the aforementioned collection and separation issues [34
Europe only recycles 35% of its plastic packaging [38
]. In other less economically developed regions like India and South Africa the market for used plastic is bigger. The UK for example is mostly exporting waste to Asia for recycling [40
]. Whereas bottles and commercial films are examples of easily recycled single layer packaging, many small items of domestic packaging such as multilayer food packaging are not recycled effectively. The priority of food quality, minimizing the spoiling of food, is the most important characteristic of the packaging. Life cycle assessments factoring in the risk of food waste show the use of multilayer non-recyclable packaging has a lower environmental impact overall than less effective single layer packaging [41
Other times, the design of packaging prioritizes labelling and branding above ease of recycling, as is the case for full wrap shrink labels. These full bottle labels are made of a different material to the bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle underneath, often polystyrene or polyvinyl chloride. This is also true of smaller polypropylene adhesive sealed labels but these float on water and are washed into a separate polypropylene recycling stream during waste management [43
]. Most present day full wrap shrink labels are not so easily separated from PET and interfere with subsequent color sorting or near infra-red sorting [44
]. This example shows that even products made of separate recyclable materials can be inadvertently or carelessly designed to reduce the final recyclability of the article in practice.
Another area of confusion surrounding plastics relates to compostable plastic food packaging, where the end-of-life option is designed to prevent litter and pollution, but consumer misunderstandings can result in non-biodegradable plastic contaminating compost [45
], or post-consumer sorting practices excluding all plastic from organic recycling because of the uncertainty over what products are appropriate [46
]. Nevertheless, this is only a problem of communication (labeling), and recycling best practice. As renewable and biodegradable plastics such as PLA grow in popularity [28
], waste management will treat them more seriously as a valuable source of secondary materials rather than sporadic contamination.
Although the example of plastic packaging has been used here to introduce the topic, it is problematic because of the vast volumes of waste material it generates, the same issue of product design principles overlooking end-of-life options applies to significantly more technical and more valuable products as well. Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is made difficult to recycle because of its complexity and how the product is assembled. To be able to easily reclaim the precious metals in waste, EEE would be most helpful in contributing to a circular economy, for many elements have supply risks from the European perspective [47
]. The issue of waste EEE recycling [4
], and elemental sustainability [49
], is covered in detail elsewhere. With European Directive 2012/19/EU requiring a 45% rate of waste EEE collection [50
], and only two-thirds of collected waste EEE in the European Union actually being recycled (2013 data) [51
], there is still much to improve on.
What is important, regardless of the nature of the article, or whether is it bio-based or not, is that in a circular economy the lifespan of materials is maximized by keeping them in use as long as possible (through recycling for instance). A greater association by consumers with the service of products, not the identity of the product itself, must occur to back the consensus that if waste is reduced, and materials are used for longer, then a greater service is obtained from the finite amount of material resource available to us. The design of products to be easily separated and dismantled into their components, each made of the most appropriate material for optimal (planned) end-of-life processing is the basis of what allows us to improve reuse and recycling rates [52
], and correct our historically poor use of resources. Changing consumer expectations within a circular economy by offering service-based business models, in effect renting the function of a product [53
], might be an even more ambitious exercise.
The 12 principles of green chemistry (Table 2
) provide a framework for chemical products that are ‘benign by design’ [54
]. Low toxicity and biodegradability (where appropriate) reduce the impact of chemistry. The use of renewable feedstocks is also encouraged. The prevention of waste (the first principle of green chemistry) is usually thought of as the materials that are not incorporated into products. For bio-based products, there is an opportunity to define criteria for the optimum use of feedstocks, to create products that do not become waste, but instead have been designed to allow the material they are composed of to remain useful beyond the lifespan of that product. A ‘recirculated’ bio-based product means the material contained within the article is returned back to a usable state, without unnecessarily becoming waste. This helps to maximize material efficiency and reduces pollution and waste (e.g., litter, landfill, net increases in long cycle CO2
The key to establishing the concept of ‘recirculation’ for bio-based products starts with their design. A formal definition of recirculation was developed in the Open-Bio project to focus efforts towards improving product design so that the materials they are made from do not become redundant (i.e., waste or pollution) after use. The full description is freely available [55
]. To understand recirculation, first the nature of feedstocks must be appreciated. ‘Renewable resources’ and ‘renewable feedstocks’ are familiar terms applied to the products of biomass. Their definitions speak of continually replenishing resources or materials. The difference is the former relies on natural processes to regenerate the resource, while the latter specifies that the resource (and source of renewable materials) is biomass.
Renewable resource [56
]: A resource with the ability to be continually replenished by natural processes.
Renewable material (EN 16575:2014): Material that is composed of biomass and that can be continually replenished.
Biomass (EN 16575:2014): Material of biological origin excluding material embedded in geological formations and/or fossilized.
Ultimately ‘renewable’ is describing biomass produced with energy captured in photosynthesis. The term ‘resource’ can generally be substituted with ‘feedstock’ and thus is applicable as a description of the input to bio-based product manufacturing. The definitions of ‘renewable resources’ and ‘renewable materials’ could be considered as interchangeable, although the latter might be applied to intermediates or processed biomass. Now having established the context in which the word ‘renewable’ can be used, we see a definition for the term ‘renewable chemical’ also relies on it. The use of ‘renewable’ remains anchored in the resource (biomass) and then transferred to the downstream product. No mention of the sustainability of the biomass is made in these definitions.
Renewable chemical [57
]: A monomer, polymer, plastic, formulated product, or chemical substance produced from renewable biomass.
A bio-based product is produced from renewable material(s) but that does not guarantee that the article contributes to the replenishment of the resources it relies on. In fact, its design may hinder it, but the end-of-life of a bio-based product is not part of its definition.
Here we endorse ‘recirculation’ as an over-arching term to describe bio-based products with end-of-life options that facilitate the continued availability of the material the product is made from (Table 3
]. Additionally, a sub-set of definitions have been created to emphasize end-of-life and resource efficiency considerations. Note that these definitions only apply to products, not resources, feedstocks, or materials etc. The wording of the definitions arose from discussions and consultations organized by the Open-Bio project [58
How the definitions are applied is governed by the preservation of an article’s form and function. When a product (or a component part) is reused, it retains its form, and in turn its ability to function is maintained. Of course, this requires its chemical composition to have basically remained unchanged. Mechanical recycling removes the form (and hence some value) of the product; melting and extruding or other processes create a batch of recycled material [59
], but normally leaves the chemical composition intact. Chemical recycling, the deconstruction of a material into the original intermediates [60
], will retain some functionality but polymerization to reform the original polymer is then needed to return the material to use as an end-product. This is most promising for polyesters where mechanical recycling does not produce a high-specification recyclate, as is the case for PLA [61
]. Renewability of an article (not a resource or material in this instance) is demonstrated in biological processes where the form and the chemical composition must necessarily be lost. Biodegradation creates and releases carbon dioxide, but only to the effect of completing the carbon cycle for bio-based products. From the definitions in Table 3
a clear hierarchy presents itself, ordered according to how much of the value of a bio-based product is retained after end-of-life waste processing is complete (Figure 4
). Reuse is thus preferable to recycling, while the renewal of biomass feedstocks by organic recycling is the least preferred mode of recirculation. Do not mistake this conclusion as suggesting all products should be directly reusable. The application of the product will determine the best end-of-life option. For instance, ultimate biodegradability in the environment has no material value, but is desirable for products used in that context, for instance some types of fishing equipment, the coatings on boat hulls, mulch films, and chainsaw lubricants for the forestry industry that cannot be recovered. Reuse and recycling are intrinsically not viable or prohibitively expensive in these scenarios and so biodegradation is the most favorable end-of-life option.
Some concessions have been made regarding the definitions to accommodate existing vocabulary, in particular those that address the concept of renewability. This definition of ‘renewable’ in the context of material recirculation (Table 3
) is specific to 100% bio-based products. This leaves biodegradable fossil derived articles unclassified with respect to any of the three subset definitions of recirculation: namely ‘reusable’, ‘recyclable’, and ‘renewable’. Anaerobic digestion and gasification can be considered as options for the renewal of chemical feedstocks (again only from 100% bio-based products at end-of-life) but ideally for production of high value materials and substances rather than cheaper energy products. Energy recovery is also not covered explicitly within the recirculation end-of-life definitions. Incineration is popular for energy recovery, and lessens the burden on landfill [39
]. In some ways, incineration is more valuable than composting because of the favorable energy balance but composting has an environmental value [62
]. What has happened in recent years is that energy recovery has become a major business, and this business thrives on the availability of low value waste. A mentality of this sort does not encourage a circular economy. To justify the practice of energy recovery, the type of application the product is used in should mean no other managed end-of-life option can be envisaged but to burn it (obviously, landfill will not be considered). To avoid the release of long cycle carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to increasing GHG emissions, only 100% bio-based products are suitable from the point of view of material recirculation.
Different options for recirculating products and their order of preference are clarified below (Figure 5
). Reuse has a number of different forms. A design justification is required if the end-of-life option chosen is down the waste value hierarchy. Remanufacture can be considered as producing the same end result as closed loop recycling, but it is preferable because it is more direct and retains the form of the article or component part without having to reformulate or mold a recyclate back into its original form. Other types of reuse practice (i.e., extended lifespan through repair or reconditioning) are also strategies for maximum resource efficiency but do not constitute recirculation alone. A clear end-of-life plan is still required for the inevitable redundancy of the product when it occurs. Ultimately, a net loss in material resources indicates recirculation is not achieved. Recyclable products shall be designed so that they do not cause the depletion of the feedstocks needed for their manufacture simply because of design flaws.
3.3. Design Criteria
Standards would be one way to transform the recirculation philosophy into tangible instructions. This is then the basis for labelling criteria or certification, therefore translating definitions and ideas into a practical tool. A blueprint for such a standard has now been published on the Open-Bio project website [55
]. Contained in the test method are design criteria, which are validated by pre-existing standards for different end-of-life practices as well as upstream issues. Essentially the design of a product shall maximize the possibility of (i) realizing the most efficient process of manufacturing (including the assembly of component parts) and (ii) the most appropriate waste management approach. To be more specific, the criteria to be met to demonstrate recirculation of a bio-based product covers three main areas:
The design of the chosen manufacturing route, which should also reduce waste to a practical minimum;
The product shall be designed to support the disassembly of any component parts in order to assist with the managed end-of-life options. When a product consists of multiple parts with different end-of-life pathways, disassembly must be achievable with the primary purpose of separating the component parts so that they can enter the correct waste streams without cross-contamination. Life cycle assessment (LCA) can be used as part of the justification, as can the functionality (e.g., food packaging limiting applications to a single use) in order to establish the most viable end-of-life process;
The intended end-of-life pathway of a product or component, and its design for a maximum functioning lifetime, must not unnecessarily affect the performance of the entire article. The incorporation of bio-based content also creates new opportunities with respect to the performance of an article, with biomass and bio-based chemicals offering different functionality and new characteristics.
The recirculation design philosophy will require a major evaluation of many products. The design of a significant number of everyday articles has evolved through time to become high performance at the correct price for their market, but in doing so have become locked into a certain construction and assembly that cannot be easily reversed to prioritize keeping the material in use. Producers should expect, in a circular economy, to need to be in a position where the can justify product design choices should they come to restrict the use of secondary materials and biomass feedstocks, or encourage less preferable end-of-life options.
More often than not, multiple end-of-life treatments will be theoretically possible for any given product. It is the design of the product or component part in question that ultimately dictates which option is the most practical and preferable. In turn, the design is decided by the function and intended use of the product. The recirculation test method requires that the end-of-life practices that best retain the form and function of the product are prioritized, with a justification required each time a step is taken down the waste hierarchy (Figure 5
To illustrate the importance of design on recirculation, plastic lined disposable paper cups provide a contentious example. The article is made of two routinely recyclable materials, usually paper fiber adhered to an inner polyethylene film lining. The plastic lining solves the functionality problem of the water adsorbent paper, while the paper fiber forming the bulk of the mass provides the correct price, branding platform, rigidity, and fulfils consumer expectations regarding aesthetics etc. However, the article is not correctly designed for reuse, recycling, or biodegradation when the two materials are not easily and routinely separable for their specific recycling processes. It is only the design (barring economic factors) that is limiting recirculation in this example, where just a quarter of 1% of the three billion plastic lined disposable paper cups used in the UK every year are recycled [64
]. A severe shortage of appropriate recycling centers is responsible [65
To correct this problem, the use of a bio-based PLA film instead of polyethylene makes the entire article compostable [67
], and so the product has now been designed in a way that allows for recirculation. One criticism is that reuse and recycling have been forsaken as target end-of-life options, and the recirculation test method encourages these higher value processes. A different design decision is to reduce the adhesive fastening and compensate with the addition of a releasable clasp-like system [68
]. Consequently, this means the separation of the polyethylene plastic and paper components for recycling becomes routine. Although not a specific objective of the recirculation design criteria, should it not be possible to develop a product in order to improve its end-of-life waste management prospects then new recycling processes can be invented instead. Research has shown conventional polyethylene plastic lined disposable paper cups can be converted into a composite resin after use [70
]. The paper element is actually beneficial to the performance of the composite, and so this is not just a way to ‘hide’ waste by burying it into plastics rather than in the ground.
With no disposable cup indisputably better for the environment outright than another [71
], just discussing the variety of options might be helpful. It would provide flexibility to the waste management infrastructure, but we know from compostable plastics that the extra waste sorting required is a complex barrier to overcome. Furthermore, the sheer volume of plastic lined disposable paper cups exceeds the available recycling capacity and the market for secondary materials anyway [72
]. Even if the required technology was more widely available the problem therefore would not be resolved. That is why we now have PLA containing biodegradable disposable cups.
What recirculation promotes above any other option in this case study is the rather obvious alternative of a reusable cup. At present, several coffee shop chains encourage customers to bring their own cup from home by offering a small discount [73
]. Just a month of daily use puts the production energy balance in favor of a ceramic cup compared to using a plastic lined disposable paper cup each day [74
]. To promote a cultural change towards cup reuse, an effort from all stakeholders in the value chain is needed, from producer, supplier, to consumer. The role of the recirculation concept in this is to clarify the benefit of design for different waste management options, indicating how the value inherent to materials can be best preserved beyond the lifespan of a single product.