We take carbon from ground and emit it into air. Our food crops take phosphorus and nitrogen from soil and eventually they end via consumption and waste waters into our water bodies. We extract aluminium and copper from rock for our devices, just to let them accumulate into soils under our landfills.
The end result of all this is a mess. Otherwise good and useful elements become harmful when in wrong places and in wrong quantities. Circular economy aims to fix this system error we humans have created into our biosphere. By creating closed loops we can keep the elements in control.
To be able to do this, we need to design our whole society better – to use circular design. In circular design products and processes are designed so that no waste is created. In order to achieve this goal, circular design needs to happen on the level of elements and compounds. And that’s the challenge!
We cannot utilize ash from power plants for its phosphorus if we cannot get rid of the cadmium in it. We cannot utilize waste water sludge for its nitrogen if we cannot get rid of the ibuprofen in it. For fixing all this we need technologies to extract, isolate and fractionate compounds and elements from each other.
The first wave of circular economy has been all about discussing how to keep material streams in the loop. How to recycle paper, plastic, metal, water and minerals. The second wave, and the real challenge and impacts come when we eventually, case by case, can keep compounds and elements in the loop.
There have already been some inspiring examples. In a pulp mill sulphur from flue gas can be recovered and used in sulphuric acid production, creating a closed loop for sulphur. As another example, advanced systems can recover the phosphorus from sludge for fertilizer use to make closed-loop systems for phosphorus. And there’s sure more to come. The future of circular economy lies in pure chemistry.
Tiina Pursula | Business Director
Gaia Consulting Ltd.
Tiina Pursula is Gaia’s Business Director – with a background in chemistry and a passion for the future of circular economy.