It’s time for a new economy
Our current economic model has already exceeded the Earth’s ecological limits and is endangering the stability of the ecosystem and the livelihoods of humankind.
The alternative model
An alternative is a circular economy. Analogous to the ecological cycle of nature, there should be no waste in the economy. The use of materials is optimized, energy is renewable and environmental impacts are avoided. Multiple feedback loops, such as rethinking, reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, recovering and recycling (the 7R’s), generate and stabilize the whole system.
QI for the circular economy
In the debate on the circular economy so far, the role of quality infrastructure (QI) has hardly been addressed. This is an unfortunate ignorance, as metrology, standardization, conformity assessment and accreditation institutions could provide essential services providing the circular economy with a reliable technical framework. Moreover, especially in developing and emerging countries, QI bodies belong to the core of the national science, technology, and innovation system (STIS) organizations needed to support operational circularity initiatives.
Before thinking about new QI services for the circular economy, we should highlight what QI agencies already offer today that can be used for circular transformation:
As the circular economy model is mainly based on resource and energy efficiency, standards such as ISO 14001:2015 (EMS) or ISO 50001:2018 (EnMS) and many product standards offer practical guidance for companies to establish sustainable production processes.
In addition, there are new standards that explicitly refer to the circular economy. Representatives of standards organizations from 72 countries and 15 observers are currently working in Technical Committee 323 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in several working groups on the following topics: Framework and implementation principles (ISO/WD 59004), guidelines on business models and value chains (ISO/WD 59010. 2), measuring circularity (ISO/WD 59020.2), case study analysis (ISO/CD TR 59031), implementation of business models (ISO/DTR 59032.2) and product circularity (ISO/AWI 59040 datasheet).
The new circular economy standards refer to existing standards and concepts such as eco-design, product life cycle, environmental footprint, extended product responsibility or secondary raw material standards. This, in turn, translates into the challenge of a systemic vision, whereby placing the different standards in a coherent context.
The participation of developing and emerging country representatives in international standards committees is essential to ensure that specific regional realities are respected. For example, high degrees of the informality of certain economies must be considered. If the circular economy concept attaches particular importance to product design, it must be borne in mind that many products are imported in the countries of the Global South. Therefore, import controls are crucial in this situation, as is product recycling. Even if, in the sense of the circular economy, recycling is a less efficient way of putting materials back into the cycle, it should still be appreciated, as it represents an essential source of income for many waste collectors.
Accreditation bodies also support the transition to the circular economy. The IAF and ILAC are focusing this year on exploring accreditations to assess the conformity of reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, and waste management standards to conserve resources and limit waste.
QI is part of the circular economy coalition
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the regional organizations of the Quality Infrastructure of the Americas (QICA), namely the Pan American Standards Commission (COPANT), the Inter-American Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC) and the Inter-American Metrology System (SIM), have launched a project to promote the contributions of quality infrastructure for the circular economy (QI4CE). The Organization of American States (OAS) and German development cooperation through the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) support this project. Three thematic working groups (agri-food, construction, and plastics), metrology institutes, standardization institutes, and accreditation bodies are working with circular economy stakeholders to identify needs and develop related services jointly. At the same time, quality infrastructure actors work together in the Circular Economy Coalition for Latin America and the Caribbean.
With these and other initiatives, quality infrastructure is helping to make the economy circular and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).