Inside every machine, product, or process are countless essential components that contribute to carbon emissions for their entire lifespan. But those parts and materials can find their way into other uses instead of being discarded. The Circular Economy (CE) economic model outlines how we can reduce the amount of materials and resources for anything we build or manufacture.
In order for businesses to become sustainable, we must aim to minimise waste and maximise resource efficiency. This article explains what the R-Strategies in Circular Economy are, provides real-world examples of how leading companies are already implementing them, and provides practical advice for businesses looking to adopt these circular strategies.
We live in an age where the production, use, and disposal of industrial materials such as steel, plastics, aluminium, and cement account for almost a quarter of all global CO2 emissions,1 where 100 billion pieces of clothing sold each year around the world accounts for 20% of water pollution, and batteries for electric vehicles use scarce metals that are in finite supply and have many negative impacts on the environment.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Circular economy redefines what is considered waste, with hallmark processes that could not only reduce waste produced, but also diminish the quantity of virgin materials we need. It can also address 70% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.2 With so many benefits, policymakers and businesses are working to increase resource recovery, extend the life of products, and shift away from the cheapest waste-management solutions such as landfill and incineration.
Enter the 10 R-Strategies that guide how circular design and manufacturing can keep resources in use and waste out of the environment. These are R0 Refuse, R1 Rethink, R2 Reduce, R3 Reuse, R4 Repair, R5 Refurbish, R6 Remanufacture, R7 Repurpose, R8 Recycle and R9 Recover. Each circular strategy contributes to how we can create, preserve, and recover the value of inputs in inspiring ways, from making beer out of day-old bread to designing a sweater made of recycled plastic water bottles.
What are the R-Strategies?
The R-strategies, sometimes also referred to as the R-Hierarchy or the R-Ladder, fall under a hierarchy. It is a useful tool for visualising and understanding the different stages of resource use and waste management in a circular economy.
The ten strategies are classified under three categories that demonstrate the length of the waste loop each represents. The shorter the loop, the more sustainable the strategy is. The higher they are on the ladder, the tighter the waste loop. This means the strategy requires fewer materials and is therefore more circular. Smaller numbers also indicate the beginning of the value chain, and larger numbers at the end.
- Short loops focus on smarter product use and manufacture: R0 Refuse, R1 Rethink, R2 Reduce.
- Medium loops focus on life extension strategies: R3 Reuse, R4 Repair, R5 Refurbish, R6 Remanufacture, R7 Re-purpose
- Long loops focus on creative material application: R8 Recycle, R9 Recover.
Surprised to see recycling so low in the ranking? The positive impact on circularity and overall sustainability is indeed higher at the beginning of the material value chain, where numerically the strategies are lowest and the waste loop is the shortest.
Next, we delve into each R-strategy with real world examples of how they are being employed to increase circularity and sustainability.
The role of each R-strategy
Short loops: Smarter product use and manufacturing
R0 Refuse, R1 Rethink, and R2 Reduce might be the most idealistic of the 10 strategies, but they are the most desirable if we want to create a waste-free world. That’s because, if applied extensively, these would totally eliminate waste early on in the value chain, when products are first conceived, designed, and developed. Net zero, here we come.
How? Through strategies that tackle waste at the crucial product design phase. These short-loop approaches Refuse the original harmful product or material and offer an alternative, Rethink waste as a resource, and Reduce the amount of inputs necessary.
R0: Refuse, because consumers can do without it
This holy grail of R-strategies either bans the use of specific materials deemed harmful to the planet, puts an end to a certain production process, or phases out one product that is detrimental to the environment in favour of an efficient alternative, or eventually making it redundant altogether (e.g. slower fashion, disposable straws, and incandescent bulbs).
A salty, turbo-charged example is Broadbit, a technology company for next generation electric vehicles, portable electronics, engine starters, and grid energy storage. Its lower cost, better-charging batteries are based on metallic sodium and other widely-available compounds. Among the active materials is sodium chloride (NaCl), or table salt. Using an abundant raw material is earth friendly, unlike mining for scarce metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper for conventional batteries.3
R1: Rethink, because sharing is caring, and scalable
Rethink refers to making a product use-intensive through sharing products or by putting multi-functional products on the market (e.g. leasing clothes, battery swapping points, or reusable coffee mugs).
One company spreading the digital love is Grover, a startup that rents tech items on demand. It circulates a range of over 5,000 items, including smartphones, laptops, virtual reality gear, wearables, and smart home appliances. Business owners and managers hold onto only what they need. When they’re done with it, they can send it back to Grover’s warehouses, where it is assessed for its condition, wiped of data, refurbished, and returned to the inventory, lengthening the product’s life, and diverting it from landfills or collecting dust in a drawer.4
R2 Reduce: because less is more (efficient)
Reducing the consumption of natural resources is the last R-strategy in the small loops cluster. It aims to increase the efficiency of product manufacturing or use. Doing so results in using fewer natural resources and producing less waste. This also increases the efficiency or use of a product. It can translate into fewer individually owned cars, fewer lawnmowers, lighter designs, and a smaller global material footprint. Reducing resource use during the entire life cycle of a product happens at both production and use phases. At the production phase, processes can be optimised via digital tools, lean manufacturing methods, and bio-based materials.
Pure Waste’s clothing is made of 100% recycled fibres, containing 60% recycled cotton and 40% recycled polyester from bottles. One t-shirt has a water footprint of 1.2 litres and a carbon footprint of 1.1 kilograms, while the same shirt manufactured from virgin materials uses 1,426 litres of water and produces 2.1 kilograms of CO2. Eliminating virgin fibres from their supply chain saved 4,907,070,999 litres of water and 3,091,056 kilograms of CO2 emissions as of December 2022.5
Medium loops: Extend the lifespan of a product and its parts
R3 Reuse, R4 Repair, R5 Refurbish, R6 Remanufacture, and R7 Repurpose are the next best strategies when the shortest loops simply cannot be applied. They help lengthen a product’s lifespan, retaining goods and their parts in the economy for longer. If dismantled carefully, materials and components can be reused elsewhere for the same or different purposes.
To work, R3–R7 strategies require market receptivity, well-functioning reverse logistics, profitability for the parties involved, a thorough Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and the deployment of these strategies by varying business models. A circular economy business model that companies can adopt to stimulate reuse is Product as a Service (PaaS). Products are designed so that they can be rented, leased, or shared by multiple customers in subscription models with services attached. Prolonging the use phase of the product is another reuse strategy when the principles of longevity, durability, and re-purpose are embedded in product design through high-quality materials and constructions.
R3: Reuse, because trash is treasure
Reuse is when a different consumer uses a discarded product that is still in good condition and is able to fulfil its original function. But it extends to anything from second-hand markets to the standardisation of items like pallets and glass bottles, so they are compatible with international or cross-industry use.
The cup is half-full as Coca Cola and r.Cup are scaling reusable packaging in North American restaurants, music and sports venues, cinemas and other on-premise outlets. Once binned and collected from each location, r.Cup collects, washes, sanitises, inspects, and repackages the cups to be used again. In addition to handling on-site deliveries and pickups, r.Cup supplies collection bins, staff training, signage, and social media content.6
R4: Repair, because it has life in it yet
The Repair and maintenance of a defective product so it can perform once more. To achieve Silver Level certification under the Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Product Standard, a company has to provide examples of acceptable progress on any work toward establishing a process or program for maintenance, repair, or refurbishing services, or partnerships that will allow for maintenance, repair, or refurbishing services.
And John Deere farming equipment should know. Beginning in early 2023, the world’s largest maker of machines such as tractors, combines, and balers now gives consumers the right to fix their own equipment. Previously, farmers were only allowed to use authorised parts and service facilities rather than cheaper independent repair options.7 Recent Right to Repair laws are tackling the obstacles to owner repair, which previously has led to higher consumer costs or encouraged consumers to use more single-use devices instead of making repairs.
R5 Refurbish: because it can be updated
Restoring an old product and bringing it up to date has obvious benefits to the circular economy. Upgrading or modernising a product can happen within (with updated components) and on the outside (with new fabric, casing, or paint).
The obvious makeovers are for tech and appliances, and Apple, Dell, HP, Samsung, Amazon and iFixit all offer refurbished product programs for devices. But the same applies to lesser-known applications such as MUD Jeans for rented denim, Remy Martin’s refurbished cognac bottles, and Patagonia Worn Wear, a program that the outdoor clothing company started to promote sustainability and reduce waste. It's a way for people to buy and sell used clothing and have their old Patagonia clothing repaired or recycled.
R6: Remanufacture, because parts can make a whole
In contrast to refurbishment, remanufacturing involves integrating product components that are still perfectly intact into new products with the same function. It tends to be industry-specific, more rigorous, and involves durable assemblies. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that remanufacturing can save up to 80% less energy, 88% less water, 92% less chemical products and 70% less waste.8
With more than 20 remanufacturing plants worldwide, automotive supplier ZF takes back used parts, remanufactures them, and puts them back on the market. At just one remanufacturing plants, approximately 40-50 tons of used clutch parts (or "cores") arrive daily, of which between 80 and 95 % are remanufactured and returned to the market. It consulted toxicological evaluations, supply chain stakeholders, and production departments to get there.9
R7: Repurpose, because the original can be reborn
Repurpose is a strategy that incorporates discarded components into a completely different product for a unique benefit or alternative purpose. This strategy fosters innovation and can lead to the creation of unique, value-added products.
Tracegrow Oy produces organic certified fertilisers from used alkaline batteries. The Finnish company’s patented process separates micronutrients from recycled alkaline batteries and industrial side streams. Compared to traditional methods, Tracegrow’s fertilisers are proven to reduce carbon emissions and enhance crop productivity.10
Long Loops: Creative material application
Suppose by now, reducing waste hasn’t been achieved with the first eight strategies. Then last, and by some standards, least, R8 Recycle and R9 Recovery are the longest loops in the R-framework that deal with a process that is still relevant: yielding materials from solid waste destined for landfill, and energy/heat recovery from incineration.
How can this be achieved? Recycling involves collecting waste and transporting it to a facility for sorting into different categories before it is processed into new materials. Recovery can be simple (e.g. organic composting). Not without their merits, this can involve several more complex processes detailed below to still make a valuable positive impact as long as industries still produce waste.
R8: Recycle, because trash is treasure
Processing materials through recycling makes sense, especially when a product cannot be used any longer and there are materials within it to recover. Upcycling makes high-quality materials (e.g. recycling polyamide fishnets to make Econyl for outerwear) or downcycled (e.g. wood into paper pulp).
Terracycle is a company that specialises in recycling hard-to-recycle materials, including cigarette butts, snack bags, and coffee capsules. Where local facilities are not taking certain waste, TerraCycle works with brands, retailers, and other stakeholders who fund the recycling process. Its in-house scientists and material application specialists operate in 21 countries worldwide.
R9: Recovery, because organic waste is hot
The composting of organic waste can recover energy through anaerobic digestion. The waste is broken down in the absence of oxygen to produce biogas, which can be used to generate electricity or heat. The generation of electricity or heat can also occur through waste-to-energy, a term for incineration that generates electricity or heat, or by capturing landfill gas.
Anaerobic digestion services in Mexico are big, and Biogas Energía specialises in biogas plants. The company processes manure, food waste, and municipal solid waste into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity, heat, or renewable natural gas. One plant processes over 1,000 tons of organic waste per day and produces enough biogas to generate 1 MW of electricity. Another processes wastewater and tequila byproducts to produce biogas, which is used to generate heat for the distillery. Their biogas plant at the Granjas Carroll pork production facility processes manure and other waste to generate electricity and heat.
An example of multiple R-strategies in use
Despite the hierarchy, the most optimal sustainable strategy is always case-specific and should be based on a holistic, system-wide approach that often employs several at any time. Impactful sustainability projects often employ multiple R-strategies.
A great example of a sustainable strategy is Mycelium Design, a project in which fungal threads are developed into new materials that are 100% natural and biodegradable to replace synthetic, fossil fuel-derived plastics, cement, or leather. Because fungi can turn low-quality agricultural waste streams such as corn stalk into high-value materials, it is seen as a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to plastics, wood, and rubber. Microbiologist and project leader Han Wösten’s work inspires artists and designers, who turn his fungus material into clothing, vases, bricks, and furniture.12
The R-strategies utilised by Mycelium Design are as follows:
- R0 Refuse: By creating an alternative to synthetic, fossil fuel-derived plastics, cement, or leather, the project is refusing to use environmentally harmful materials.
- R1 Rethink: This project fundamentally rethinks material usage by harnessing the potential of a biological resource (fungi) in producing everyday objects.
- R2 Reduce: By using fungi that turn low-quality agricultural waste streams into high-value materials, the project reduces waste and the use of non-renewable resources.
- R7 Repurpose & R8 Recycle: The project repurposes agricultural waste, a product that is often discarded, into a valuable resource.
Practical advice for businesses looking to adopt R-strategies
Start by understanding your waste streams. What types of waste does your business generate? What are the volumes of each type of waste? Where does your waste go now?
Identify opportunities to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover your waste. Conduct a life cycle assessment. Are there ways to reduce the amount of waste your business generates? Can you reuse any of your waste materials? Can you recycle or recover any of your waste materials?
Set targets for reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering your waste. Once you have identified opportunities to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover your waste, set targets for yourself. These targets should be ambitious but achievable.
Develop a plan to achieve your targets. Your plan should outline the specific steps that you will take to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover your waste. It should also include a timeline for achieving your targets.
Implement your plan and monitor your progress. Once you have developed your plan, it is important to implement it and monitor your progress. This will help you to stay on track and to make adjustments as needed.
Understand the tradeoffs. Some R-strategies are actually more waste or energy intensive than the original process, or implementing one might jeopardise another. It is important to evaluate such results and change tack accordingly.
Conclusion: R-strategies help shape a sustainable, circular future
The R-Strategies are not just about recycling or waste management – they hold the power to shape a sustainable, circular future. These strategies represent a fundamental shift in our relationship with resources, and challenge us to rethink our consumption patterns, redesign our products, and redefine the concept of waste. Imagine a world where we design and consume with intention, where every product is created with its entire lifecycle in mind. A world where waste is not an afterthought, but a resource to be harnessed. A world where we not only consume, but also contribute to the regeneration of our planet.
Although the goal to eradicate waste completely by perpetually utilising resources within a closed-loop system may seem ambitious, it is certainly within our reach to minimise waste and optimise resource efficiency. We have moved beyond the oversimplified adage of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” and must now embrace the broader R-Strategies to significantly reduce our environmental footprint.
In embracing these strategies, we are not only preserving our planet for future generations, but also unlocking new economic opportunities and fostering innovation. The journey towards a circular, sustainable future may be challenging, but the R-Strategies show immense potential and promise. Let us embrace these strategies and together to create a future where nothing is wasted and everything is valued.
Circularise is the leading software platform that provides end-to-end traceability for complex industrial supply chains. We offer two traceability solutions: MassBalancer to automate mass balance bookkeeping and Digital Product Passports for end-to-end batch traceability.
Contact us to understand how our traceability solutions can help the transition towards more sustainable Rare Earth value chains.