As the industry emerges from the COVID-19 period, it has an opportunity to transform itself. The circular economy could prove an effective model for how to move forward, addressing its broad array of challenges in the process.
Going round and round
Broadly speaking, the circular economy is a system of production and consumption centred on reuse. This contrasts with today’s “linear economy,” which primarily draws on finite raw materials and manufactures items that are built for one-time use and eventual disposal.
A shift toward a marine circular economy would see lubricants and components—like bearings, engine parts, chains, and other manufactured systems—reused, remanufactured, recycled, and repurposed. It would require companies producing products with a circular life in mind, and it would require a retooled supply chain. But the potential benefits are vast. Depending on a component’s weight, the cost of extracting its construction resources, and the length of continued service, reused and remanufactured goods could considerably reduce the marine industry’s CO2 footprint and overall resource consumption.
This sounds like a monumental task, but it’s already underway. Currently, some 10% of the maintenance components on the marine supply chain fit the definition of circular economy, according to Rasmus Elsborg-Jensen, a business leader and advocate for the circular economy in the marine industry. This is only scratching the surface of what’s possible. By contrast, according to Elsborg-Jensen, as 30 and 50 percent the airline and auto industry maintenance supply chains, respectively, operate on a circular basis.
What success looks like
The auto industry provides a great example of what’s possible as the marine circular economy matures. Renault isn’t just a top manufacturer, it’s a leader in the circular economy. The company’s Espace car is 90% recycled. And at one of the company’s French factories, it deconstructs old gearboxes, tests the components inside, and uses the workable pieces in new builds. Three fourths of the components that feature in the factory’s new gearboxes come from recycled or remanufactured parts.
SKF, too, is involved in remanufacturing. A number of the industrial bearings SKF creates can be retooled and sent right back into the supply chain.
Examples of the circular economy
- SKF’s RecondOil treatment system allows continuous use, without degradation, of a fixed volume of oil.
- AkzoNobel uses bio-based materials to make paints and coatings.
- Procter & Gamble realised more than $1 billion in value over the past five years by operating facilities on a zero-waste basis.
Growing the marine industry’s circular economy is a complex process, but it hinges primarily on education. Industry leaders might not understand what is possible when they first learn about the circular economy, and ship operators might not be confident in a remanufactured engine without proper education. Marine classification societies, for example, are only beginning to study remanufacturing and safety documentation.
In addition to education and classification concerns, full scale adoption of the circular economy will require a transformed, flexible supply chain that is able to find value in a product’s two-way traffic.
To quickly maximise the circular economy, the marine industry will need to embrace new digital solutions. Elsborg-Jensen’s company, Re-Flow provides software to facilitate adoption of the circular economy. ReFlow’s digital platform can trace individual components and provide environmental reporting.
Interestingly, blockchain technology could also play a key role. Blockchain establishes an iron-clad linkage among networked computers: nothing can be hidden or overlooked, no one can cheat, all changes and entries are immediately available to all participants. Such technology could strengthen the track-and-trace and verification processes needed to ensure that critical remanufactured components—like engine parts and bearings—went through the proper steps, at the proper factories, to guarantee they are ready for reuse.
A sustainable future
Mariners will always need to provide safe and efficient transport. Additionally, operations will need to align with broader expectations regarding environmental measures. A mature circular economy could accomplish both, helping the marine industry find untapped value along the way.