Towards a sustainable circular economy – integrating circularity in life cycle sustainability assessment


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The key research goals in this project are:

  • Identifying the gaps in monitoring and quantifying circular economy (CE) strategies.
  • Identifying, developing and combining indicators to assess and measure circularity and its positive and negative impacts on performance in life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA).
  • Using LCSA to assess CE strategies.
  • Developing a framework for integrating CE in LCSA which enables the identification of trade-offs between an improved circularity and resulting impacts on sustainable performance.

The details

The ongoing transition to a circular economy (CE) is aimed at achieving a resilient and profitable economy, reducing environmental impacts and saving natural resources. However, not all circularity activities are automatically more sustainable, as some trade-offs may occur (e.g. major environmental impacts due to intensive processing of wastes, or social effects when production locations change).

Continuous monitoring of implemented strategies is thus essential to ensure an effective and manageable sustainable CE. Indicators, such as material consumption or recycling rates, can help to quantify the characteristics and consequences of CE and make them measurable, and thus comparable and manageable, over the longer term. Besides measuring CE, the impacts on sustainability also need to be assessed.

Therefore, life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) is a suitable approach as it contemporarily addresses the environmental (life cycle assessment), economic (life cycle costing) and social (social life cycle assessment) aspects. No consistent approach is yet defined to integrate CE in LCSA, which is the motivation for my research project.

Hence, in the course of the study, relevant CE indicators will be identified and a set of indicators to be used along with LCSA will be proposed. Moreover, it will be examined whether LCSA is suitable to evaluate CE strategies. A framework will be developed to integrate CE assessments in LCSA, and the framework will be tested with a case study in the building sector.

Graduate researcher profile: Anna Luthin

What did you do before you started your PhD?

Before starting my PhD, I studied Georesources Management at the RWTH Aachen University (B.Sc., M.Sc.). During my Master’s program, I specialized in environmental management and spent a semester abroad at the Università degli Studi di Padova in Italy, where I studied the effects of climate change. Furthermore, I gained my first experience in energy management during an internship at Daimler AG. In my Master’s thesis, I examined the identification of trade-offs between environmental and economic performance by combining life cycle assessment (LCA) and life cycle costing (LCC). Since July 2020, I’m working as a research assistant (PhD) at the Institute for Sustainability in Civil Engineering (INaB) at RWTH Aachen University.

What are the challenges of your research role?

In the beginning, it was challenging for me to narrow down my topic and bring structure to my research. However, my biggest challenge at the moment is more of an organizational matter, which is to balance the requirements of both universities RWTH Aachen University and The University of Melbourne in the context of my Joint-PhD.

What is the best part of your research role?

What I like most about my role as a researcher is the exchange with others. I like sharing my work, getting new impressions, and hear about different projects. Of course, what I also like is the moment when another milestone on the way to the PhD is completed.

Where do you wish to go after your PhD? Do you want to enter industry or continue doing more research?

I am not sure what I wish to do after my PhD yet. I think it is interesting to put my previous research into practice in the industry - but I also continuing research is exciting to me. Let's see what time brings up until I finish the PhD. I am still open for everything that comes.

Supervision team

First published on 2 September 2022.

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