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Circular economy and material transition are key issues

CHRONICLE On 2 April 2020, Sweden will have used up its share of the renewable resources that the Earth has the capacity to sustain per year. And there are almost three quarters of the year left. Only 8.6 percent of the materials we use today are circular. We need to switch to a circular economy and use resources more efficiently, for example through upcycling. RISE is an independent innovation partner and a hard-to-beat platform for development partnerships where actors in the same or different industries can collaborate to achieve future solutions.

All of us, here and now, must switch to a circular economy. We must take our responsibility to avoid depleting the Earth’s resources, so that our children and grandchildren have a world left to live in. Today we live in a primarily linear economyin which we take natural resources, produce, consume and dispose. Only 8.6 percent of the materials we use are circular. A circular economy is based on closed-loop models where products are produced so that they can be recycled and reused as part of a technical or biological cycle.

Circular economy – an untapped potential

If we are to meet our environmental goals of preventing depletion of the Earth’s resources and significantly reducing our climate impact, circular economy is the only feasible way forward. The most import aspect in a circular economy is how we use materials. If our goal is to use all the material we have extracted from the planet as many times as possible and for as long as possible, then up until now we have failed abysmally in most application areas. For instance, only 10% of the plastic we use is recycled into new materials (even though almost 40% of plastic is collected for recycling in EU countries). And only 1% of the textiles in clothing is recycled (an additional 2% is recycled from other supply chains such as plastic bottles, but the total figure is less than 3% globally). Add to this the fact that use of materials such as steel, cement, cellulose and plastic is expected to increase by a Factor 2 level to a Factor 4 by 2050, and it’s clear that we need to succeed in achieving a circular economy based on materials. The potential for those who succeed first is almost immeasurable.

Why is the development not moving faster

Despite the clear need and enormous potential, progress is excruciatingly slow. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Companies often invest their limited development resources in making incremental improvements which, unfortunately, can rarely or never lead to a circular economy.
  • Nordic companies invest relatively little in research and development in general, with only a few exceptions. The major material manufacturers and the big brand owners who are dependent on materials usually invest less than 1% of their turnover in research and innovation, while the 1,000 most innovative companies in the world invest 4.5% of their turnover in this area[1]. Sadly, only a handful of Swedish material companies fall into the latter group: Essity (1.1%), StoraEnso (1.3%, Finland/Sweden) and Sandvik (3.9%).
  • A systemic shift towards increased bioeconomy requires far more than incremental improvements.
  • Circular economy depends on profound changes in behaviour, and investing in design or systemic changes is something that few companies are accustomed to in their development processes.

Upcycling, recycling and reuse

We can sum up the challenges above by saying that in order for a circular economy to succeed, many companies have to want approximately the same things at the same time and in many countries. But large corporations aren’t used to cooperating with competitors to achieve systemic changes such as, for instance, new deposit-refund systems, reuse of packaging or recycling and upcycling of materials. RISE is an independent innovation partner and a hard-to-beat platform for development collaborations. At RISE we conduct interdisciplinary projects in almost all material areas. Our staff includes lawyers and teams working with policy development and governance, and we have more testbeds and pilot equipment than anyone else. And it is in collaboration with companies such as you that we can find the solutions of the future.

Examples of RISE’s interdisciplinary programmes include Mistra Closing the Loop, focusing on the upcycling of industrial by-products and waste products as valuable resources, and Mistra Future Fashion, which spent eight years promoting a sustainable future fashion industry in collaboration with industry and research. We also work with product safety, traceability and standardisation with the aim of getting legislation and future needs to go hand in hand.

Materials ecosystems gives us upcycling and resuse – multiple times around

These are not issues that the big brand owners address themselves, however big and global they may be. Packagings, plastic items, textiles and other products must be able to share systems and solutions and build ecosystems of materials that make it possible to trace materials, carry out repeated recycling and upcycling, enable positive business models and create added value for society at large. This an enormous transition journey.

Politicians, producers and consumers – we must all work together to increase the share of circular materials used. Today we use 8.6% circular materials. Earth Overshoot Day 2020 in Sweden is on 2 April. When will it be in 2021?

/ Jon Haag, former VP Business & Innovation Area Material Transition at RISE

[1] PwC Global Innovation 1000 study, 2018