Numerous old, no longer used mobile phones are hoarded in drawers and offer great raw material potential.
Photo: Dietrich Hunold

Circular Economy Made in Aachen

In the Center for Circular Economy (CCE), RWTH brings together its expertise in the field of the circular economy

Everyone is talking about the circular economy. Public discussions on the subject tend to focus on recycling and sustainability. Yet the transformation of our linear structures into a circular system calls for much more than just the environmentally friendly treatment of waste. In fact, it demands a rethink of our entire notions of value creation and our society! To provide practical embodiment for this vision, RWTH set up the Center for Circular Economy in late 2020. The Center seeks to bring together expertise from all faculties and to provide a network of industry, society, and academia to enable the transformation to a circular economy. At present, we have 26 institutes working across faculties and other central RWTH bodies involved in CCE.

While the concept of a circular economy is widespread in public discourse, there are few practical approaches to a solution at present. Popular notions such as zero waste give the impression of a potentially waste-free society, but there are no measures available at present to implement this at a global level. Rather, the objective of a circular economy (CE) is value creation from long-lasting products together with the sustainable use and recycling of resources. The value of a material, product, or raw material should be maintained for as long as possible. Along the value chain, that is, from extraction of the primary resources through the use phase to disposal and recycling as a secondary raw material, ideally only very small amounts of waste should be generated. Accordingly, a conscious use of resources and goods can result in immense ecological and economic potential. The actions implied here are represented by the principle of the ‘5 Rs’: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle.

Graphic: ANTS/CCE der RWTH Aachen University

At present, meanwhile, a functioning circular economy is only a vision. Given the rapidly growing middle class around the world and its striving for Western consumer standards, our linear economy is reaching its limits owing to the scarcity of resources. The squandering of resources in the form of waste is increasingly becoming a luxury. So how can a transformation to a circular economy be effected? What hurdles must our society overcome in order to close the materials cycle? And what role can the Center for Circular Economy (CCE) at RWTH play in this?

Interactive core areas

As a transdisciplinary platform, the Center is intended to provide innovative solutions for circular value creation. In addition to closing materials cycles, this also prioritizes the rethinking of resource use, the prolonging of product lifecycles, reuse/recycling, processing, and repairing. Parallel to the ‘5 Rs’, the activities of the Center for Circular Economy are divided into the interactive core areas of ‘Material Recirculation’, ‘Product Sustainability’, and ‘Circular Business Models’.

Graphic: ANTS/CCE der RWTH Aachen University

The Material Recirculation area includes all activities related to the recirculation of materials, for example the recycling of waste streams into processing and reuse. Complex, technical materials, and products are making the production of high-quality recyclates increasingly difficult. Sustainability must therefore begin at the production and product design stages if linear processes are to be converted to circular ones.

Responsibility must therefore be borne not only by the raw materials producer but above all by the manufacturer. These aspects are addressed in the Product Sustainability area. As well as sustainability in the supply of materials, it is necessary to design products to be durable and high in quality, and capable to an appropriate degree of being dismantled or repaired. This ensures that in addition to good usability, the product can be passed on into a second product lifecycle. The objective is to keep materials circulating for as long as possible and thus to reduce the consumption of raw materials and to replace linear ‘end-of-pipe’ approaches. To make the longevity of products economically viable, in turn, the required framework conditions are necessary. What is required are circular business models – that is, models that foster this sustainability and indeed make it possible in the first place.

‘On average we replace our smartphone with a newer model every 18 to 24 months. The old phone often ends up in a drawer, rather than being disposed of correctly. As a consequence, the recycling system is deprived of up to 56 different raw materials.’

To achieve such a transformation of our value creation system and society, the expertise and cross-disciplinary cooperation of all research departments is necessary. The CCE network is therefore made up of all the faculties of RWTH. In this, the Center serves the function of a beacon and a mediator. As a contact point for themes linked to the circular economy, the Center welcomes players from science, industry, policy-making, and society and makes the combined expertise of the different professorships and institutes available in a large knowledge pool. Core competences in the field of circular economy are thus developed in interdisciplinary projects. As a transfer element, CCE returns the insights gained back into the pool and into teaching. One of the aims here is also, as an institute, to offer a master's degree in circular economy in the future.

Raw materials potential of smartphones

As a ‘beacon’ project of the Circular Electronics work group at CCE, the ‘100 Smartphones’ sensitization campaign was created. The Faculty of Georesources and Materials Engineering at RWTH asked its employees to hand in their old smartphones, no longer used and consigned to a drawer, as a means of sensitizing people to the quantity of hoarded devices and the quantity of raw materials potential thus lost. ‘On average, we replace our smartphone with a newer model every 18 to 24 months. The old phone often ends up in a drawer, rather than being disposed of correctly. As a consequence, the recycling system is deprived of up to 56 different raw materials – which include not only the familiar base metals but also precious metals such as gold and palladium, and critical metals such as indium, gallium, and tantalum. The collected smartphones now serve as a basis for testing out recycling processes or process chains in line with the circular economy framework that open up the overall raw materials potential of the smartphones as much as possible,’ says open up the overall raw materials potential of the smartphones as much as possible,’ says professor Karl Bernhard Friedrich of the Institute for Metallurgy and Electrometallurgy and initiator and co-founder of CCE. In addition to interfaces within the recycling process chain and approaches to materials recycling, the application of digitalization approaches, and also the use and collection situations need to be investigated.

Project sequence of the ‘100 Smartphones’ campaign.
Graphic: ANTS/CCE der RWTH Aachen University

Within the framework of the sensitization campaign, initial (technical) approaches should thus be developed that indicate and harness the circulation potential of a smartphone. From the outcomes obtained here, specific requirements can be formulated for the development, production, and use of smartphones and the political framework conditions that will enable the circular economy to be moved from a conceptual to an application-oriented level. Beginning from the Circular Cities Declaration of the City of Aachen, a scaling of the ‘100 Smartphones’ project conducted internally at RWTH up to city scale is being discussed in order to sensitize the inhabitants of Aachen on this issue.

As an interface for research, industry, policy-making, and society, CCE has already built up a substantial network since its inception in 2021. Working closely with the City of Aachen, partner universities and independent research institutes, CCE has already established itself as a regional contact point on the subject of circular economy. In a cooperation project with industry and RWTH, on April 5, the Center launched a large-scale consortium benchmarking initiative in which best-practice examples for an adequate implementation of a functioning circular economy will be chosen from more than 5,000 companies. The study is expected to produce its first findings by late 2022. The Center also publishes articles on an ongoing basis in specialist magazines and represented RWTH at the signing of the Circular City Declaration on the part of the City of Aachen. In the near future, as a center of competence for circular economy, CCE is expected to become the hub of a regional cluster and to provide innovative circular economy solutions on the national and international levels.

– Mohammad Chehadé, Maximilian Rummel