Wait! Before you go...

Subscribe to TheShift e-newsletter for LCA and sustainability resources and news.

The Circular Footprint Formula: A Novel Source of Insight and Clarity for Organizations Pursuing Circularity

The Circular Footprint Formula provides circularity-oriented perspectives on materials, energy, and disposal, and can help translate complex concepts into simple language

Clear, consistent, reliable information on environmental impacts is essential for sustainability decision-making — particularly for organizations pursuing greater circularity. Strategic choices on selection and use of recycled materials can have an enduring effect on the environmental footprint of products.

The Circular Footprint Formula (CFF) is an emerging tool, promulgated by the European Commission, that offers useful circularity-oriented insights into materials, energy, and disposal considerations, including factors like avoided production of new materials and downstream recycling and energy recovery. It also provides important compliance information that will be increasingly necessary for products being sold into European markets.

“We’re seeing growing interest in CFF from a number of different types of clients; perhaps the greatest interest at this point is in the packaging industry, where paper and cardboard, metals, and plastics are so central,” explains Amalia Sojo, EarthShift Global’s director of analytical services, who has conducted a number of CFF training sessions.

graphic of circular footprint formula

Figure 1. Schematic view of the CFF

A schematic view of CFF (Figure 1) shows its focus on materials that are “circulated” through a product — inputs on the left can be either virgin or recycled, while outputs on the right cover recycling into other products, energy recovery, or disposal. This configuration makes it easy to differentiate the circular and linear aspects of a material’s use.

Adaptable to a Wide Range of Scenarios

Amalia notes that much early uptake of CFF has been for “pure” materials that can be easily recycled, such as steel, glass, or aluminum, and those that lend themselves to energy recovery via incineration (like some plastics and chemicals). But CFF’s flexible mathematical formulas mean it can be adapted to a very wide range of scenarios.

Circular Footprint Formulas

Figure 2. The CFF formulas

Those formulas, shown in Figure 2, might seem complex at first glance, but Amalia points out that they can be easily broken down into simple components and addressed step by step.

“The closer you look, the more you can grasp why the formula was created that way, and the reasons behind the numbers,” she says. “I’ve seen many people who go through that process realize that while the equations themselves aren’t designed for sharing with a big audience, they can guide you to clear conclusions that are easy to understand and can be put into simple language for broad communication. It’s actually a very powerful tool for translating complex circularity concepts in a way that helps people grasp them.”

For example, using the CFF can help illuminate, given certain market and material conditions, the environmental implications of different scenarios:

  • Sending as much material as possible to recycling (R2 close to 100%)
  • Sending it instead to energy recovery (R3 close to 100%)
  • Maximizing the amount of recycled material going into the system (R1 close to 100%)
  • Not going circular (R1, R2 and R3 close to 0%)

CFF makes it easy to compare these, plus any number of intermediate scenarios, to an organization’s baseline and overall objectives. 

A Comprehensive Assessment, Upstream and Downstream

Considerations incorporated into the formulas include upstream emissions and resources consumed in acquisition and pre-processing of virgin material, and those consumed in the collection, sorting, and transport of recycled material, as well as the downstream impacts of recycling materials. Energy recovery calculations include the heating value of the material, efficiency of the recovery process, and both the emissions and impacts of recovery and the avoided impacts of heat and electricity sources being substituted for.

This type of comprehensive assessment provides critical visibility for circularity efforts. As EarthShift Global senior sustainability analyst Amos Ncube stated in a 2022 article, Circularity Does Not Guarantee Sustainability, “The centrality of systems thinking to circularity makes trustworthy and wide-ranging metrics especially important.”

On a more tactical level, Amalia points out that use of the CFF can aid compliance with several European Union initiatives, including the Product Environmental Footprint environmental assessment methodology and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation.

The latter regulation, which aims to boost circularity, energy performance, and other sustainability factors, will require a Digital Product Passport to provide information about “attributes such as the durability and reparability, the recycled content or the availability of spare parts of a product. It should help consumers and businesses make informed choices when purchasing products, facilitate repairs and recycling and improve transparency about products’ life cycle impacts on the environment.”

“These sorts of things aren’t yet mandatory, but they need to be planned for, and a lot of companies are starting to require the information,” adds Amalia.

Could your organization’s circularity efforts benefit from CFF? We can help you assess your situation and opportunities — contact us.