KcKinsey Quarterly has a look at closed-loop "cradle to cradle" style industrial manufacturing systems which it calls the "circular economy" - Remaking the industrial economy. MKQ also has a related interview with the CEO of Phillips - Toward a circular economy: Philips CEO Frans van Houten.
Visualize, for a moment, the industrial economy as a massive system of conveyor belts—one that directs materials and energy from resource-rich countries to manufacturing powerhouses, such as China, and then spirits the resulting products onward to the United States, Europe, and other destinations, where they are used, discarded, and replaced. While this image is an exaggeration, it does capture the essence of the linear, one-way production model that has dominated global manufacturing since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Increasingly, however, the linear approach to industrialization has come under strain. Some three billion consumers from the developing world will enter the middle class by 2030. The unprecedented size and impact of this shift is squeezing companies between rising and less predictable commodity prices, on the one hand, and blistering competition and unpredictable demand, on the other. The turn of the millennium marked the point when a rise in the real prices of natural resources began erasing a century’s worth of real-price declines. The biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression briefly dampened demand, but since 2009, resource prices have rebounded faster than global economic output. Clearly, the era of largely ignoring resource costs is over.
In light of volatile markets for resources, and even worries about their depletion, the call for a new economic model is getting louder. In response, some companies are questioning the assumptions that underpin how they make and sell products. In an effort to keep control over valuable natural resources, these companies are finding novel ways to reuse products and components. Their success provokes bolder questions. Could economic growth be decoupled from resource constraints? Could an industrial system that is regenerative by design—a “circular economy,” which restores material, energy, and labor inputs—be good for both society and business? If the experience of global automaker Renault is any indicator, the answer appears to be yes.
A circular economy replaces one assumption—disposability—with another: restoration. At the core, it aims to move away from the “take, make, and dispose” system by designing and optimizing products for multiple cycles of disassembly and reuse.2 This effort starts with materials, which are viewed as valuable stock to be used again, not as elements that flow through the economy once. For a sense of the scale involved, consider the fast-moving consumer-goods industry: about 80 percent of the $3.2 trillion worth of materials it uses each year is not recovered.
The circular economy aims to eradicate waste—not just from manufacturing processes, as lean management aspires to do, but systematically, throughout the various life cycles and uses of products and their components. (Often, what might otherwise be called waste becomes valuable feedstock for successive usage steps.) Indeed, tight component and product cycles of use and reuse, aided by product design, help define the concept of a circular economy and distinguish it from recycling, which loses large amounts of embedded energy and labor.
Moreover, a circular system introduces a strict differentiation between a product’s consumable and durable components. Manufacturers in a traditional economy often don’t distinguish between the two. In a circular economy, the goal for consumables is to use nontoxic and pure components, so they can eventually be returned to the biosphere, where they could have a replenishing effect. The goal for durable components (metals and most plastics, for instance) is to reuse or upgrade them for other productive applications through as many cycles as possible. This approach contrasts sharply with the mind-set embedded in most of today’s industrial operations, where even the terminology—value chain, supply chain, end user—expresses a linear view.