Circular Economy Benefits for the Metals Industry

A quick Google search of the term “circular economy” results in a multitude of articles, many of which are only hours old. This phenomenon speaks both to the heightened interest in the technologies and innovation that are realizing/enabling this once-novel concept and to the urgency being felt toward transitioning to a circular economy in lieu of our current economic model which works against a vision of sustainable development.

As businesses are starting to consider and implement more sustainable and socially responsible methods of operation, viable and cost-effective models of circularity are beginning to manifest. You might be wondering how the metals industry, and your organization in particular, can adopt these exciting and opportunity-filled developments, but you also might be feeling overwhelmed by the amount of circular economy-related information flooding in. This article will help clarify some key terms, discuss the benefits, and give you the fundamental understanding needed to navigate this topic.

What are key terms used to describe the circular economy?

If we are to understand the term used to describe our destination - a circular economy - we must first understand a few key terms which describe our current state - a linear economy.

Linearity - “Cradle-to-Grave”

The term “linearity” describes most of our contemporary industrial ecosystems where:

  1. virgin materials are used to manufacture a product;

  2. that product is purchased by a user and used until it is discarded when it fails or becomes obsolete; and,

  3. wastes generated during the manufacture and use of that product are discarded.

Often this ecosystem is described as “Cradle-to-Grave,” implying the end of life for all that is discarded. In a linear economy, the ecological benefits of a product - or conversely, its ecological toll - are rarely factored into its market price. This scenario, and these terms, describe “business as usual” today for much of the world.

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Circularity - “Cradle-to-Cradle”

The term “circularity” describes the industrial ecosystem we aspire to where:

  1. use of raw materials as manufacturing input are minimized and instead, reclaimed materials are favored;

  2. renting a product - in lieu of ownership - obliges the return of that product to the manufacturer when it fails or becomes obsolete where it is remanufactured or disassembled and all its components are reclaimed; and,

  3. wastes from manufacturing or use are designed out of the product.

Walter R. Stahel, who is considered the father of industrial sustainability, dubbed this model “Cradle-to-Cradle” implying that discarded materials will live many lives as they are intentionally recycled, remanufactured, and reused.

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Circular Economy Goals

The main goals of circularity are to:

  • Slow, minimize, and narrow a product’s energy and material loops by maximizing the use and reuse of natural capital.

  • Eliminate waste (material and energy) by adopting innovative materials, products, business models, and systems of operation.

  • Eliminate toxic materials and non-renewable energy from manufacturing and use and replace them with biodegradable materials and renewable energy sources.

In a circular economy, adequately monetizing a product’s negative impact on the environment, such as landfill loading or contribution to climate change, will make it more expensive; hence, the market drives the reduction of negative impacts as it seeks to lower prices. Ideally, items with a lower impact will be less expensive.

By creating a business model with long-lasting products and streamlined maintenance, repair, reuse, and remanufacturing of those products, a business reduces their social and environmental impacts. In addition to minimizing waste, a business is able to maximize the value of the time, energy and materials in which they have already invested.

Establishing a circular economy is no small feat but it is a crucial ‘next step’ toward society’s imperative to establish systems with a restorative and regenerative impact on the planet.

How Can Circularity Benefit My Facility?

Decrease the need for virgin materials.

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  • In a circular economy, a raw material is only purchased once. After its first use to create a product, that product will be reused, recycled, refined, and/or repaired so it may be used again in the same system of operations. In a circular economy, dependency on raw materials is reduced which in turn reduces vulnerability to price volatility of the raw material. The American Foundry Society estimates that making castings out of recycled metals requires 95% less energy than using raw metals! This means less energy costs for your facility as well as less pressure on the environment.

  • Everyday materials used in industrial operations, such as metals, sand, wood pallets, packaging materials, steel drums, and wood chips, can be reused and recycled. Choosing to reuse and recycle these materials removes the need to frequently purchase these items for your everyday operations, decreasing the cost of producing finished products for your facility. Reusing these materials also removes the cost of disposing used materials.

Achieve recognition as an innovator in your industry. 

  • By investing in and developing streamlined and cost-efficient operations, you have the opportunity to become a technological leader in your industry.

  • Investors have been signaling to companies that they value efforts to incorporate sustainability into everyday operations. A circular economy model demonstrates to investors that your facility is committed to being socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and efficient operators.

Have a positive social and environmental impact.

  • The availability of raw materials (i.e. metals, oil, coal, etc.) is diminishing rapidly due to unsustainable rates of mining and extraction. A circular economy model reduces the your business’s vulnerability to the effects of the deterioration of raw materials. By reducing and reusing raw materials in your business’s operations, you are contributing to a global effort of reducing our impacts on the environment and contributing to a positive social system.

  • The circular economy operational model decreases pressures on landfills, waterbodies, energy demands, and minimizes negative effects on air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that recycling steel reduces air pollution by 86%, water use by 40%, water pollution by 97% and mining wastes by 97% in comparison to using iron ore.

Circularity Examples in the Metals Industry

KERAMIDA has worked with foundries to recycle and reuse their industrial materials, such as sand and metal, thereby adopting a circular business model. Metals-based materials are unique in that they can be recycled indefinitely without losing their inherent properties, which makes this business model profitable for metalcasting facilities.

KERAMIDA has also worked closely with industrial facilities to establish programs that allow them to recycle and reuse their materials while maintaining compliance with state and federal regulations. Collaborative efforts include implementing programs that

  • reuse materials within melting and molding stages,

  • produce recyclable products for customers,

  • buy back used materials from other operators for reuse

  • supply secondary markets with reusable materials and byproducts from the metals industry.

If you are considering implementing a circular model for your facility, please reach out to KERAMIDA. One of our experienced professionals would be happy to work with you to find the program and approach that best fits your operations. For more information about our Sustainability Planning and Consulting Services, please call us today at (800) 508-8034 or contact us here.


Blog Author

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Lindsey Popken
Environmental Scientist
KERAMIDA Inc.

Contact Lindsey at lpopken@keramida.com.