Circular economy: a challenge and an opportunity

By Ana Alonso, assistant researcher at the High-Assurance Software Laboratory (HASLab)

The concept of a circular economy is largely based on keeping materials in the economic loop for as long as possible. This is particularly important for those considered to be critical raw materials[1], either because of their rarity or stability of supply. Figures for 2016 show that circularity strategies, i.e. repair, reuse and recycling activities, generated €147 billion in added economic value in Europe (COM(2019)190). It is estimated that between 2020 and 2030, these strategies will yield €1.8 trillion in added value, and enable the creation of 1 million jobs (COM(2019)22), reducing environmental and social pressures, and improving the EU’s strategic autonomy. In fact, the new EU Green Deal, which serves as a roadmap of key sustainability measures and policies, includes the goal to “achieve a climate neutral and fully circular economy by 2050’” (COM(2019)640).

Enabling a circular economy requires information covering the full lifecycle of products – manufacture, retail, use, reuse, repair, recycling – spanning multiple stakeholders. One of the the challenges to realising this vision is that the relevant data often reside in silos managed by each stakeholder, making it very challenging to access information across institutional boundaries or evaluate the effect of selected strategies or decisions holistically.

The CircThread project aims to provide a digital platform that enables data sharing between stakeholders, effectively building a digital product thread.  INESC TEC is taking part in the CircThread project through CESE and HASLab, contributing to the data interoperability aspects of the platform, to the implementation of data usage contracts to enforce data access policies and to providing holistic views of the distributed data as needed.

CircThread’s pilots target home appliances (e.g., washing machines) and home energy systems (batteries, solar panels), with 7 circularity use cases for both newly manufactured and existing end-of-use products: 1) product tracking & tracing as a chain of custody, 2) product manufacturing information acquisition, 3) product in-transit and aftermarket spare parts recovery, 4) product end-of-use recommendations, 5) lifespan extension via repair and circular design, 6) critical raw materials and chemicals evaluations, 7) consumer purchasing and use decisions.

[1] For more information, see https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/areas-specific-interest/critical-raw-materials_en.

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