How do I know if something is worth circulating?
Determining whether a material is worth circulating involves an array of factors. It is unsustainable to recycle materials at any cost.
“It is often very difficult to determine what is best for the environment,” says Christina Jönsson. “You need to possess a lot of knowledge about materials and sustainability, and about how products are used, and for how long.”
Jönsson is a former sustainability researcher, but now heads up the Materials and Production Division at RISE. Her colleague, Unit Head Lisa Schwarz Bour, elaborates:
“The main issue is not about striving for circularity in all situations. Instead, it’s about using materials so that the right material ends up in the right place.”
Following below are some examples.
The right material in the right place, not the right material in the wrong place
Some materials are like pearls before swine
“A number of product manufacturers choose high-performance material components when circulated materials of a lower quality would have worked equally well. Choosing components that last for ten years is not worth it if consumers replace the product after one year. A garbage bag doesn’t need the highest quality plastic – a recycled material will probably work fine.”
Sometimes virgin materials are necessary
“In certain applications, it may be necessary to use virgin material, for example, certain components of sophisticated technical products, such as aircraft and vehicles, where the service life must also be very long and where there are strict requirements on technical performance,” says Schwarz Bour. “In other contexts, the material performance can be lower.”
Supply and demand for materials affect circularity incentives
“When there is good availability of a particular material, prices are low and environmental impact is limited, which means there is no incentive to develop advanced recycling innovations,” explains Jönsson. “Theoretically, material can be broken down into molecules and then rebuilt, but this is a highly complex process and requires considerable resources. Sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes not. It depends on, among other things, the availability of the virgin raw material and how much effort is required.”
Some materials have poorer circularity, but better sustainability
“Increasing the service life of a product is, in many cases, better than making it recyclable,” asserts Jönsson. “Examples of this include advanced protective products, with high technical performance and very complex compositions. However, we always investigate what possibilities exist to handle these product types in circular flows as well.”
Some materials stop the circular chain
“Sometimes, circular material choices mean that a product has a complex design for the sake of functionality, which can make it difficult to recycle,” says Schwarz Bour. “At present, a simpler product is usually easier to handle, while those that are difficult to manufacture can be more difficult to recycle. When choosing material, it is important to ask what happens in the next loop. And it’s important to note that reuse is an option that is always prioritised over recycling.”
Some materials cannot be recycled due to their chemicals
“Flame retardant textile material, for example, cannot be recycled and used in garments. Here you need to consider the input chemicals in relation to applications.”
We can see that the desire to do the right thing has never been greater
The art of doing the right thing
Even product manufacturers with great sustainability ambitions often find it difficult to see the whole picture.
“Obtaining the functions you want in a product often requires complex material compositions,” says Schwarz Bour. “Look at the amount of material on the market, which has different performance properties, the amount of material combinations, all the ways in which materials can be treated, different dyeing processes and their impact on sustainability, and so on.”
There is therefore immense interest in enlisting the help of RISE, which offers testing, analyses and advice on material selection, material development, recycling technologies, classification of recycled materials and more.
“Requirements from customers and in legislation are constantly increasing, along with the risks if you cannot show that you are working seriously on sustainability issues. We can see that the desire to do the right thing has never been greater.”
Businesses come to RISE to future-proof their sustainability work.
“Instead of guesswork, you get access to the right data and advice, which contributes to scientifically based decision-making.”