Leading countries are making global efforts to accomplish carbon neutrality for dealing with climate change. Most of the action plans for carbon neutrality include “circular economy,” which maximizes product life and minimizes waste. Despite the efforts, according to the Ministry of Environment (MOE), 540,000 tons of garbage were dumped every day in 2020. Therefore, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) would like to introduce the concept, effectiveness, and future of the circular economy.
What Is a Circular Economy?
Concept of Circular Economy
A circular economy refers to an economic system that maximizes the life of resources, minimizes waste, and pursues economic growth while preserving the environment. It is also called a “closed-loop” economy because it securely circulates every step of the linear economy: the past financial system in which a product ends up as waste after production, use, and disposal. The circular economy retains products’ values through recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse at all stages of the linear economy. The linear economic system, which began during the industrial revolution, led to rapid economic growth due to increased production and consumption. However, this development brought irrevocable results; excessive production emitted enormous amounts of greenhouse gas and depleted natural resources. To solve these problems, global movements toward societies of circular economy are accelerating. Since waste is recycled and remanufactured as raw material, the circular economic system reduces both input and waste. Significantly, the recycling system decreases the exhaustion of carbon dioxides (CO2), for resources circulate at every stage from production to disposal. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British environmental group, CO2 emissions can be reduced by about 3.7 billion tons if the circular economic society is introduced worldwide. Furthermore, consumers can reduce production and waste by reusing manufacturers, further prolonging the product life cycle. Thus, in a circular economic society, all community members should responsibly participate in environmental issues. In essence, when the circular economy is adopted widely, carbon neutrality will be achieved.
|Piles of Garbage|
Progress of Circular Economy in Korea
In October 2020, South Korean President Moon declared “Carbon Neutrality 2050,” a policy that aims to equalize the volume of carbon emission and absorption until 2050. Since then, the 2050 Carbon Neutrality Committee (CNC) launched and passed 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). According to the 2030 NDC, Korea should reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% until 2030 to shift toward carbon neutrality. Moreover, the 2050 CNC included a transition to the circular economic society at the Carbon Neutralization Scenario in October 2021. Then, the MOE established an implementation plan for the Korean circular financial community last December to execute the scenario. Through this project, first, most synthetic plastics made of crude oil will be replaced with bioplastics. Besides this, 100% of household plastics will be replaced with bioplastics by 2050. Furthermore, the government will strengthen the standard of bioplastics to include more than 50% of biomaterials, and plastic manufacturers would have to use more than 30% of recycled materials. Secondly, cosmetic refill stations will be expanded to promote eco-friendly consumption, and the MOE will provide a Carbon Neutral Practice Point that can be used as cash. A Carbon Neutral Practice Point is a point system that offers economic incentives for consumers if they reduce energy consumption such as electricity, water, and gas or practice carbon neutrality in their daily lives. In addition, since the number of disposable products increased dramatically during the pandemic, the MOE will start a project promoting multi-use containers. Specifically, the project funds restaurants for multi-use containers and cleaning costs.
Is Circular Economy Practical?
Limits to the Possibility of Recycling
Recycling refers to the process of collecting and turning materials into new products that would otherwise be thrown away as waste. Although product life maintains longer in the circular economy through recycling, no product can be recycled infinitely. For example, fibers and papers become less efficient as they go through recycling processes, and recycled aggregates were challenging to be used at a construction site until their quality was enhanced continuously. The low recycling rate is another problem. According to a survey conducted by Hankook Ilbo in 2020, only 40% of waste was recycled; 60% of waste was thrown away due to the complicated recycling process. For instance, waste such as electronic devices, alloys, and synthetic fibers have different recycling methods and cost too much to separate every component. As the types of waste become more diverse and complex, the process of discharging, collecting, and sorting waste needs to be improved.
Limitations of Reuse and Remanufacturing Structures
Reuse means to use something again after repairing or reprocessing, and remanufacturing refers to rebuilding a product to the original product’s specifications using a combination of rebuilt parts. To reduce the energy required to produce products, the government aims to improve the durability of products by reusing or remanufacturing them. However, it is difficult for the mass-production system to make small amounts of components needed for repairment in reusing the product. As a result, companies should always have the components in stock, burdening both companies and the environment. Besides, the negative perception of remanufactured products hinders the growth of its industries. The Korean remanufacturing market size is small because individuals think that the quality of remanufactured products is poor. Also, companies worry that the production of remanufactured products shrinks the sales of new products. Finally, attempts to reduce the total production by extending durability are contrary to modern society’s consumption patterns. These days, product life depends not on whether it works but on the choice of consumers. Since modern consumers are sensitive to trends, simple attempts to extend the durability of products may fail to reduce the overall product production.
Limitations of Bioplastics
According to the circular economic society implementation plan, Korea will replace most synthetic plastics with bioplastics by 2050. Although bioplastics emit 85% less carbon in maximum than existing synthetic plastics, there are some concerns. First, there is a dilemma in using bioenergy to produce bioplastics. A large amount of bioenergy is needed to produce bioplastics, eventually causing environmental problems. For example, excessive green algae produced by large amounts of bioenergy can destroy aquatic ecosystems. In addition, the increased demand for bioenergy implies an increase in grain demand: this can cause agflation – inflation of food prices due to the rising price of crops. Second, bioplastics themselves can have environmental problems. Currently, the decomposition condition of degradable bioplastics is decaying 70 to 90% at 58 Celsius degrees. The problem is that plastic does not rot even after many years because the requirements for decaying are not met in the natural environment. In addition, oxy-degradable bioplastics – bioplastics that are shattered when exposed to light or heat – flow into the sea and break into pieces due to the sun and waves. As a result, microplastics eventually accumulate in living organisms through the food chain. Therefore, it is essential to find a balance between synthetic plastics and bioplastics under continuous ecological management, and it is not desirable to consume bioplastics unquestioningly.
For a Feasible Circular Economic Society
Introduction of New Technologies and Businesses
For a realistic and sustainable circular financial community, Bioplastics companies must overcome current technological limitations and change their business models. The development of new materials and technology that can overcome the limits of recycling is the core value of companies. For example, mechanical recycling, which crushes plastics into small pieces and melts them, deteriorates products’ quality as recycling is repeated. On the other hand, chemical recycling, which extracts oil from plastics through chemical reactions, allows products to maintain their original quality. SK Geocentric, LG Chem, and Lotte Chem, which possess chemical recycling technologies, dominate the markets in Korea. If companies introduce this new technology in converting to a circular economic society, they can have greater synergy. Na Kyungsoo, President of SK Geocentric, announced on February 6th that he plans to create a “recycling cluster” that integrates factories with new recycling technologies for carbon neutrality.
Importance of Consumers with Correct Perception
Changes in consumer behavior are key to implementing a circular economic system. Moving to a carbon-neutral society and a circular economic society without improving
consumers’ awareness and attitude is not easy. It is because consumers can control the value of their products by reusing, determining demands of remanufacturing market, and sorting which product is to be a waste. Therefore, consumers need to understand their role in the circular economic society. First, consumers should request the right to repair products to reuse them better. Second, for the growth of the remanufacturing industry, prejudices against the performance of remanufactured products must be overcome. According to the Journal of Industrial Economics and Business, the remanufacturing market of automobile parts is growing 16% per year, meeting various quality certification standards, and this shows that people’s perception is getting better. Lastly, consumers should separate recyclable wastes accurately. Hong Soo-yeol, a chief of Circular Resource Society Institution, emphasized the importance of proper waste separation, saying that “Since the wrong separation hinders recycling, accurate waste separation is more important than the amount of wastes recycled.”
Role of Government in Circular Economic Society
In a circular economic society, the government is responsible for setting environmental goals and supporting related industries. In the case of bioplastics, the decomposition conditions should be strictly considered to minimize ecological impact. Degradable bioplastics, regarded as environmentally friendly, are hard to decay naturally due to strict decomposition conditions. Since there are no specialized bioplastic decomposition facilities in Korea, operating facilities under the government’s leadership is necessary. Efforts are also needed to support industries related to the circular economy. For the remanufacturing industry, it is essential to expand the “Good Manufactured Product” certification and increase the number of remanufacturing allowed products from the current 87 to all products. The “Good Manufactured Product” certification accredits that remanufactured products are not inferior to original products. Moreover, as small businesses can also produce high-quality remanufactured products, the government should support small enterprises instead of supporting large enterprises only. Considering that the introduction of the circular economy for carbon neutrality is in its early stages, it is essential to accept various demands and constantly narrow the gap with the real world.
To solve the global environmental problem, Korea has also declared carbon neutrality by 2050. Although Korea has started later than other counties, we can follow them with our technology and policies. We can move toward a circular economy only when all communities participate actively in solving environmental problems.
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