The Circular Economy is a break from from the traditional take-make-dispose linear economy. Rather, in a circular economy, energy and materials are used more efficiently and regeneratively in a closed loop system. The definition is meant to be broad. It includes aspects such as design for the environment, to produce things environmentally, cost-effectively and in a way that can be easily recycled after disposal. It also encompasses aspects such as sharing economy, waste reuse, recycling and waste-to-energy re-economization to ensure that the process is as efficient, and produces the least amount of waste, as possible throughout the entire value chain.
Circular thinking in China has grown rapidly over the past decade, with a multitude of successful innovations – bike sharing has recently exploded and eco-industrial park development has improved the level of sustainable production. The government has provided a good deal of policy support, passing the Circular Economy Promotion Plan in 2008, and more recently included several sections dedicated to circular economy in its 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans. Despite these efforts, recycling rates and resource productivity across the country remain relatively low (compared to OECD countries), with many opportunities for improvements.
Our work at Tsinghua CICE is primarily focused on catalyzing systemic growth of circular systems; we work under the following major themes:
Urban mining and resource recycling. As wealth increases, so does the amount of goods that people consume and discard. Unfortunately in China, most of these goods ends up in landfills. Our research is focused on understanding the flow of goods, substances and waste through society, and identify cost-effective opportunities for recycling. Some of the material flows that we worked on include indium, copper, rare earths, PET bottles, end-of-life vehicles, nitrogen and phosphorous.
Waste collection, treatment and re-economization technologies. Our work covers all parts of the waste value chain, ultimately to maximize the amount of waste resources recycled. In one pilot project, we facilitate a public-private partnership to develop a 500,000 tonne facility to turn municipal solid waste into cement. In another, we work with biogas companies to optimize their collection and treatment of food and other organic waste into energy.
City and regional planning (circular economy, ecological civilization and low-carbon). Over the past 6 years, Tsinghua CICE has worked with local governments to map out their sustainable development plan. This has included applications to become a nationally-recognized pilot project for circular city-, ecological civilization- and low carbon- development. It has also included drafting and submitting 5-year plans, and progress evaluations. In 2016 alone, Tsinghua CICE worked with 23 regions, municipalities and districts to plan out a more sustainable future for their constituents. As local governments move from planning to implementation, we identify cost-effective technologies and practices that would best be suited to meet their goals.
Industrial symbiosis. Industries are at the crux of China’s growth over the past two decades, and industrial parks in particular have great potential for cross-industry recycling to save resources, reduce environmental impacts and bring economic benefits to businesses. However, out of China’s 1500+ nationally- and provincially- designated industrial parks, only 110 are considered eco-industrial parks. For those on the eco-friendly list, we actively work with them to interpret and carry out government stipulations. We work with them to continuously evaluate and re-evaluate their progress, and provide feedback to the government on future opportunities for growth. For other industrial parks, we help to evaluate their material and energy flows, identify opportunities for recycling, and reduce their environmental footprint.
Information systems (monitoring and management). We have developed several platforms to monitoring energy, material and waste flows in real-time, manage and then optimize said flows. These systems have been used in various applications: provincial and municipal flows, eco-industrial parks, and optimizing individual businesses. One example is the use of Internet of Things technology to track the flow of organic waste in Suzhou city. The project has helped the city to optimize its collection of organic waste, ensure that food waste from restaurants are not being illegally recycled into gutter oil, and promote the re-economization of organic waste to biogas energy. We believe in the accurate, cost-efficient proliferation of data to guide the development of our projects.