ISO 14001 & the circular economy – How are they related?

The concept of the “circular economy” in modern society is a growing one, as many business and thought leaders seek to ensure that the planet’s natural resources can support modern life and consumption habits for future generations. BSI (British Standards Institute) recently released BS8001 to provide guidance to businesses on increasing sustainability, which can be seen as the first step towards circular economy behavior. The circular economy is a concept where products are increasingly recycled and refurbished, natural resources are reused repeatedly in varying forms, and any “wastage” is utilized and consumed by different manufacturing streams to reduce usage and wastage of natural raw materials to an absolute minimum. Given that ISO 14001:2015 is the premier business tool for guiding businesses on how to mitigate their environmental impact, is there anything that can be learned and applied from the circular economy principles that can help achieve ISO 14001:2015 objectives?

Integrating circular economy principles with ISO 14001

The circular economy principle and ISO 14001:2015 are both based on similar concepts: the reduction of waste and the undertaking of actions to reduce risk in terms of the organization’s impact on the greater environment. While the circular economy concept is relatively new to many organizations, it is already clear that there are some circular economy principles that can be used or expanded to help an organization achieve its ISO 14001:2015 objectives. Let’s consider some of these principles, and how they can be used within an ISO 14001 implementation:

  • Zero waste: This is a concept being adopted by many modern organizations that have key performance indicators set to try and ensure that no part of their product, or waste from its manufacture, goes to the landfill. Obviously, this differs from one sector to another, but you can see similarities in the article ISO 14001 case study: Waste management in a construction company, where it is possible to plan projects with the ultimate goal of having zero waste and subsequent cost savings.
  • Ecodesign: This is the concept of intentionally integrating environmental aspects into your product design process, as opposed to having a design process with unexpected environmental aspects. The article Lifecycle perspective in ISO 14001:2015 – What does it mean? sheds some light on how the lifecycle of a product should be considered and defined in ISO 14001. The concept of defining and designing environmental aspects into the existing ISO 14001 process could ensure that the resulting aspects are easier to mitigate during this lifecycle.
  • Open loop system: This is basically a system where your products or components can be reused or recycled, even if into different products. This is easier in some sectors than others, but the gains are huge if it can be applied. Can your product be recycled for further manufacturing at the end of life? For example, if your product uses glass or plastic bottles, can these be adapted or recycled at end of life to produce a cheap and environmentally positive product for another product or organization? Use of this principle can dramatically improve your product lifecycle perspective, more details of which can be seen in the article Lifecycle perspective in ISO 14001:2015 – What does it mean?
  • Refurbishment / downcycling: The circular economy theory supports an economy in the coming years where electronic and electrical devices that are currently scrapped at end of life will be refurbished and “downcycled” to reduce environmental impact. (Note: downcycling is a process whereby devices or parts of devices can be recycled and refurbished as opposed to raw materials being used to manufacture new devices.) Where components, product casings or chassis, or electrical leads can be recovered, this can be considered at the design stage and the costs of recovery and refurbishment assimilated into costings. It is envisioned that in the future, refurbished products can be sold with the same guarantee and warranty conditions as new products currently are, and this will become a consumer expectation. This type of component and product reclamation has been led by companies in the electronics industry, as considered in the article Using ISO 14001 to manage waste in the electronics industry.
  • Disruptive technology: One of the most interesting and innovative technologies linked to the circular economy theory, this is the theory that two separate and unconnected businesses can adapt parts of their respective value chain to support each other’s operation, with the removal of waste as a result. In one recent example in the United Kingdom, a company that produced seaweed products for food and cosmetics was introduced to a company that distilled alcoholic products, and it was discovered that waste from the seaweed product could be utilized to power the second company’s manufacturing process. This is a classic case of “disruptive technology,” where two sectors previously unaware of each other’s needs worked together to reduce natural waste and reduce costs for both organizations. A situation like this can have a hugely positive effect on product lifecycle, waste reduction, recycling costs, dealing with hazardous materials, and the previous requirement to purchase energy over the context of the two organizations involved, all major ISO 14001 objectives for most organizations in this type of sector.

Matching two concepts for environmental benefit

There are many ways that ISO 14001:2015 and circular economy theories can be used together for improved environmental outcomes, given the relationship with lean manufacturing, which you can learn more about in the article ISO 9001 and lean manufacturing; How they compare and how they are different, and the general concept that reduced waste and increased usage and lifecycle of natural resources also represent decreased cost for the manufacturer. In the years to come, both may become equally important to the business economy as the earth’s natural resources continue to dwindle, so with that in mind, isn’t it time to begin the journey now?

Use our free ISO 14001 Foundations Course to improve your knowledge of the standard, and help you understand where circular economy principles can help your EMS performance.

Advisera John Nolan
John Nolan
John Nolan is a Fellow of the Institute of Leaders and Managers in the United Kingdom, and Prince 2 accredited with a background in Engineering and Electronics and Data Storage and Transfer. Having studied and qualified as both a Mechanical and Electronic Engineer, he has spent the last 15 years designing and delivering Quality Systems and projects across many sectors in the UK, including both national and local government.