In our modern world engineers are tasked with finding and designing solutions to the key challenges that population growth poses. Building vital infrastructure, which does not harm the planet, for an ever-growing global population is one of the most important challenges engineers face today.
There is one thorny problem to overcome before sustainable solutions can be found:
Our linear economy is impeding the sustainability of engineering invention and manufacturing. Hence, an economic concept, relatively new to the world, has been introduced that is already impacting and changing engineering. It is called the circular economy.
The Institution of Engineering Technology reports that by 2030, there will be 3 billion more middle class consumers. And by 2050, there will be 10 billion more people on the planet.
What does this equate to in infrastructural terms? More waste, and more water consumption. The institution says that waste levels are currently at 3.5 million tonnes a day, and by 2050, humans will be generating 10 million tonnes of waste per day.
David Rakowski, a systems engineer for the PA Consulting Group, is an expert on the topic of the circular economy. He compiled the aforementioned figures and says:
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the legacy we’re leaving our children is quite simply unsustainable. But why is that? Well, if you look at our current approach, we take a linear model. We dig something out of the ground, we turn it into something, and then we throw it away. That clearly isn’t going to work in a world of finite resources. So, is there another way? Well, what if, instead of taking something out the ground, making something and disposing of it, we recycled, remanufactured and reused it? It’s not exactly rocket science. But this is the fundamental concept behind the circular economy.”
Starting with waste
Engineers can, through technical intervention, create solutions for a circular economy – an approach which can work across engineering disciplines. The concept of the circular economy, however, has come under some criticism. There may be a willingness to implement the changes, but the vagueness surrounding the concept is creating a barrier. This is much like the fourth industrial revolution; some could get left behind because there is a lack of clarity on how to proceed.
In Delphine Gallaud and Blandine Laperche’s book: Circular Economy, Industrial Ecology and Short Supply Chain, the authors shine some light on how the circular economy impacts engineering. They believe that evidence of circular economy engineering emerges first in cities and neighborhoods.
They report that new industrial models are being built around the circular economy:
“These include reuse, repair, recycling, functional economy, eco-design, industrial ecology, sustainable supply and responsible consumption, in other words a profusion of concepts which demonstrates that the definition of circular economy has not yet stabilized completely.”
The circular economy is defined by how long resources can be kept and used - the hope is that resources can be kept and reused for as long as possible. It is also known as the zero waste economy. However, generating waste is almost unavoidable in industrial situations. But engineers must think how to eliminate waste, or alternatively, use that waste to create something else.
In Cape Town, South Africa, engineers have opened a waste to energy plant. The plant will utilize the household, municipal, and industrial waste the city generates and turn it into a usable fuel (liquid petroleum). The plant cost the city USD$32 million.
The plant will receive 500 tons of organic household, municipal, and industrial waste per day. It is expected to create 80 job opportunities and reduce the number of landfills in Cape Town.
The city is also collaborating with a project known as the Waste Industrial Symbiosis project that will reportedly find a use for the waste of the waste that their processes of turning garbage into liquid petroleum produces. These are the ways the circular economy is beginning to change how engineers utilize plastics and other wastes.
This process of turning engineering into an ecosystem which utilizes everything that flows through it is known as industrial ecology, and is something that engineers must consider in the future of their industrial operations - using waste as a resource. As a result a linear system becomes a closed loop system, and thereby, far more sustainable.
"Circular Economy." World Economic Forum. Web. 08 May 2017.
"Engineering the Circular Economy." YouTube. 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 08 May 2017.
Gallaud, Delphine, and Blandine Laperche. Circular Economy, Industrial Ecology and Short Supply Chain. London: ISTE, 2016. Print.