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Stay in the loop: the role of indicators in supporting decisions for circular economy strategies aiming at extending products life
Current models of production and consumption are under critique for their failed support towards increased sustainability. Contribution to plastic pollution, electric and electronic waste, excessive energy and material consumption, has aspired the need for a fundamental shift in production and consumption paradigms. Circular economy proposes an innovative “circular” model to counter these negative effects. The central tenet of circular economy is to move away from linear practices (“take-make-use-dispose” approaches) towards the continuous “cycling” of products, materials and resources to allow for more efficient and effective utilization of their value. Circular economy can be achieved by adopting circular practices that include solutions for a) intensified use of products (e.g. use oriented business models for product pooling and sharing); b) circular product design (dematerialised products; made of non-toxic and renewable materials; designed for longevity, upgradeability, reparability and recycling); c) material and resource “cycling” through cascading and industrial symbiosis exchanges, and more. Along with radical transformation of business models and value chains, product design is of the essence to effectively support circular economy transitions. The EEA report “Circular by design” from 2017 on products in the circular economy highlights that designing products using clean materials or increasing use of modular design is “a prerequisite for circularity”. Design stage, therefore, is crucial in “initiating” circular shifts; however, the strategies that aim at extending life cycles of products that are currently on the market are as significant. Same EEA report cites that the average first-use duration of small consumer electronics and accessories in Europe has decreased by 20% from 2000 to 2006, due to either technical defects, trends or affordability. Unsurprisingly, the European Commission made a resolution on a longer lifetime for products (2016/2272(INI)) stressing the urge for extended producer responsibility in reference to tackle the issues of durability, reparability and recyclability of tangible consumer goods. This article aims to provide an insight on how the sustainability related performance indicators can support decision making for circular economy strategies aiming at extending life time of existing products, components and materials (through upgrade, repair, remanufacture and recycling). A comprehensive literature review was performed to identify performance indicators that can be used to support decisions towards development of more sustainable circular strategies from business model, product development, manufacturing and end of life levels of application. The retrieved performance indicators were collected in the repository and classified according to various circular economy strategies. As a result, around 200 performance indicators were identified to be relevant for circular economy strategies targeting end of life application (including upgrade, repair, remanufacturing and recycling). These indicators were also classified according to different sustainability dimensions to help the decision makers not only to identify potential environmental performance of circular strategies, but also their economic and social performance. The article provides an example of indicators and their application to a fictive example. Based on the suggested list of performance indicators assigned to a certain circular economy strategy relevant for the case, the decision can be made to either improve the strategy, select another or avoid the implementation altogether. Gaps and future improvements on the indicators and their applicability to circular economy strategies are outlined.