Going Full Circle: The Developments in Life Cycle Assessments to Deal with Circular Economy Problems
Going Full Circle, The Developments in Life Cycle Assessments to Deal with Circular Economy Problems, Master Thesis, Ruben Leen den Uijl, 5534747.pdf (1.582Mb)
Uijl, R.L. den
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Scientists, government officials, firms, and other actors around the world are discussing ways to create a sustainable economic system. One often heard option is the circular economy. This is based on the idea that by cycling materials continuously, waste can be prevented and the pressure on the natural system reduced. The circular economy also requires becoming sustainable in order to stay within the natural boundaries of the planet. Currently, the main tool to assess the environmental impacts of products throughout their lifespan is the lifecycle assessment or LCA. Recent developments within the LCA methodology have increased its scope and ambition to also quantify economic and social impacts. Because the LCA methodology assesses lifecycles, and the circular economy thinks in lifecycles, LCA seems a logical choice to support a transition towards a circular economy. However, the major problem with LCA is the fact that it is a highly flexible tool resulting in conflicting and inaccurate results. By recreating the material and socio-economic principles of the circular economy, this research created a transition model of four phases of circular economic development. When the flexibility of the LCA methodology was identified and categorised in various levels of flexibility, it was possible to compare LCA flexibility to the circular economic principles in the various development phases. This provided the ability to identify the maximum acceptable LCA flexibility in each phase of circular economic development if LCA was to continue supporting the circular economy. This resulted in the insight that although the LCA methodology can currently play a positive role in the development of a circular economy, when the economy transitions towards circularity it becomes increasingly necessary to reduce the flexibility in LCA. This is vital because throughout the development of a circular economy actors become increasingly interconnected and must stay within the planet’s natural boundaries. Consequently, they need to be able to rely on the quality and precision of LCA studies for their decisions. Therefore, this research concludes that the LCA methodology can play a positive role in the development of a circular economy, but needs to be regularly updated in order to ensure that the maximum allowed flexibility remains acceptable for the phase of circular economy development society finds itself in.