Systems thinking

Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. In nature, examples of the objects of systems thinking include ecosystems – in which various elements (such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals) interact. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that operate together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Systems Engineering is the discipline that utilizes systems thinking to design, build, operate and maintain complex engineered systems.

SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT

The Circular Economy concept has deep-rooted origins and cannot be traced back to one single date or author. The generic concept has been refined and developed by the following schools of thought:

Regenerative design (representative: John T. Lyle).
Performance economy (representative: Walter Stahel).
Cradle to Cradle (representatives: Michael Braungart and William McDonough)
Blue Economy (representative: Gunter Pauli)
Permaculture (representatives: Bill Millison and David Holmgren)
Biomimicry (representative: Janine Benyus)
Industrial Ecology (this is more than a school of thought, it is an academic discipline that has been taught from the 1990s)

220px-Waste_hierarchy.svg

The evaluation of processes that protect the environment alongside resource and energy consumption to most favourable to least favourable actions.[1] The hierarchy establishes preferred program priorities based on sustainability.[1] To be sustainable, waste management cannot be solved only with technical end-of-pipe solutions and an integrated approach is necessary.[2]

The waste management hierarchy indicates an order of preference for action to reduce and manage waste, and is usually presented diagrammatically in the form of a pyramid.[3] The hierarchy captures the progression of a material or product through successive stages of waste management, and represents the latter part of the life-cycle for each product.[3]

The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The proper application of the waste hierarchy can have several benefits. It can help prevent emissions of greenhouse gases, reduces pollutants, save energy, conserves resources, create jobs and stimulate the development of green technologies.[4]

All products and services have environmental impacts, from the extraction of raw materials for production to manufacture, distribution, use and disposal. Following the waste hierarchy will generally lead to the most resource-efficient and environmentally sound choice but in some cases refining decisions within the hierarchy or departing from it can lead to better environmental outcomes.[5]

Life cycle thinking and assessment can be used to support decision-making in the area of waste management and to identify the best environmental options. It can help policy makers understand the benefits and trade-offs they have to face when making decisions on waste management strategies. Life-cycle assessment provides an approach to ensure that the best outcome for the environment can be identified and put in place.[5] It involves looking at all stages of a product’s life to find where improvements can be made to reduce environmental impacts and improve the use or reuse of resources.[5] A key goal is to avoid actions that shift negative impacts from one stage to another. Life cycle thinking can be applied to the five stages of the waste management hierarchy.

For example, life-cycle analysis has shown that it is often better for the environment to replace an old washing machine, despite the waste generated, than to continue to use an older machine which is less energy-efficient. This is because a washing machine’s greatest environmental impact is during its use phase. Buying an energy-efficient machine and using low- temperature detergent reduce environmental impacts.[5]

The European Union Waste Framework Directive has introduced the concept of life-cycle thinking into waste policies.[5] This duality approach gives a broader view of all environmental aspects and ensures any action has an overall benefit compared to other options. The actions to deal with waste along the hierarchy should be compatible with other environmental initiatives.

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