4 November 2019

Blanca Corona: Comprehensive metrics essential for a successful and sustainable circular economy

At first glance, a new recyclable plastic may seem like an ideal circular option. But what if recycling costs a lot of energy, depends upon the use of additional chemicals, requires long waste transportation distances, or through poor design is difficult to recycle? According to circular economy expert Dr. Blanca Corona, the metrics we currently use to measure circularity are not nearly comprehensive enough and risk the burden shifting. So what can we do about it?

Dr. Blanca Corona is an assistant professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. In this interview she reflects on her early work assessing the sustainability of innovative renewable energy technologies, and explains how in her future work she plans to draw on her design background to develop comprehensive sustainability metrics that incorporate human behaviour, ensuring real progress in the circular economy.

Your research so far has focused on life cycle sustainability assessment methodologies. Can you tell us something about this?

Assessments of new technologies and innovations often focus on environmental impacts. The thing is, and quite obviously, impacts are not only environmental. They’re also social and economic. During my PhD I was developing and using methodologies that take into account all three of these aspects to give a complete picture of the sustainability of solar power plants hybridised with biogas, an innovative renewable energy technology.

Later during my postdoctoral research here at Utrecht University I applied some of these so-called life cycle sustainability assessment methodologies to assess the impact of technologies that produce heat and power from woody biomass residues.

Current metrics ignore goal of reducing global resource consumption, and leave many potential impacts out of the equation.

Interesting! You’re now broadening the scope of your work to the circular economy. Why is this important?

The goal of the circular economy is to reach a sustainable way of producing and consuming by reducing and recirculating products and materials. What’s strange is that many metrics currently used to measure progress in the circular economy are only focused on material recirculation: how much of a product is recycled. This ignores the goal of reducing global resource consumption, and leaves many potential impacts out of the equation.

What happens when we don’t properly measure sustainability impacts?

We risk the burden shifting. Imagine a new plastic product. The fact that it’s recyclable might make it seem like a good option. But what if recycling it costs a lot of energy, depends upon the use of additional chemicals, or requires long waste transportation distances? And what if it ends up being recycled in a region that has neither environmental protection laws, nor adequate labour rights?

We need metrics that can accurately quantify all the benefits and drawbacks of potential circular strategies in order to make informed decisions about which strategies to prioritise, and how to improve them.

We need metrics that can accurately quantify all the benefits and drawbacks of potential circular strategies in order to make informed decisions about which strategies to prioritise, and how to improve them.

You started off in industrial design. What prompted the switch?

I realised there was something missing. My training was focused on designing innovative products that were attractive to consumers and made a profit. There was no focus on designing sustainable products, which is of course really important. I tried to remedy this by taking courses in eco-design, which led me to a Masters in environmental engineering, and then my PhD.

And your design background is now influencing your future research plans here at Utrecht University. Can you tell us about this?

I want to combine my research interests with my design background to develop life cycle sustainability assessment methodologies for consumer products that go further and take into account consumer behaviour. The consumer is the crucial link between production and sustainable end of life treatment. You can design an amazing recyclable or reusable product, but there is no point if the consumer finds it hard to recycle or use it in the correct way.

Bioplastics can look identical to plastics made using fossil fuels, but when mixed with traditional plastics they contaminate the recycling process. Photo: F. Kesselring, FKuR Willich

Take bioplastics - many are biodegradable if treated properly. The trouble is that they can look identical to plastics made using fossil fuels, but when mixed with traditional plastics they contaminate the recycling process. Their supposed sustainability advantages are completely lost when the consumer can’t or doesn’t know how to dispose of them properly.

Instead of just assuming the consumer will choose the right option, by understanding typical consumer behaviour we can create products that through their design promote best practices, and are in the end more sustainable. This is what I’m really excited about.

Further reading

Corona, B., Shen, L., Reike, D., Rosales Carreón, J., Worrell, E. (2019). Towards Sustainable Development Through the Circular Economy - A review and critical assessment on current circularity metrics. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 151, 104498.

Corona, B. & San Miguel, G. (2019). Life cycle sustainability analysis applied to an innovative configuration of concentrated solar power. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 24 (8), 1444–1460.

Ruiz, D., San Miguel, G., Corona, B., Gaitero, A. & Domínguez, A. (2018). Environmental and economic analysis of power generation in a thermophilic biogas plant. Science of the Total Environment 633, 418-1428.