Material efficiency is a key element of new thinking to address the challenges of reducing impacts on the environment and of resource scarcity, whilst at the same time meeting service and functionality demands on materials. Directly related to material efficiency is the concept of the Circular Economy, which is based on the principle of optimising the utility embodied in materials and products through the life-cycle. Although materials such as steel, on account of high recycling rates at end-of-life, are amongst the most ‘circular’ of manufactured materials, significant opportunities for greater material efficiency exist, which are yet to be widely implemented. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is commonly used to assess the environmental benefits of recovering and recycling materials through the manufacturing supply chain and at end-of-life. Using an example taken from renewable energy generation, this paper explores the correlation between product circularity and the environmental case for strategies designed to improve material efficiency. An LCA-based methodology for accounting for the recovery and reuse of materials from the supply chain and at end-of-life is used as the basis for calculating the carbon footprint benefits of five material efficiency scenarios. The results are compared with a number of proposed material circularity indicators. Two conclusions from this exercise are that (i) LCA methodologies based around end-of-life approaches are well placed for quantifying the environmental benefits of material efficiency and circular economy strategies and (ii) when applying indicators relating to the circularity of materials these should also be supported by LCA-based studies.
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