Creating a more resource-efficient and circular society requires a common system for the traceability of recycled and reused material. How else are we to ensure that textiles, plastic parts or metal components in a circularly produced backpack, car, or piece of furniture are resource efficient and sustainable from an environmental, climate, quality and social perspective?
This applies to any material component in any product – soles on a pair of shoes, a desk frame, or a car steering wheel. Even if the material is ‘recycled’, how do we know that it meets the desired standard?
The most frequently asked question is whether the materials contain any unwanted substances. But there are other reasons. For instance, plastics, metals and wood quickly lose their original value when recycled in non-homogeneous recycling streams with inadequate traceability.
“Even a valuable metal often becomes a simpler product when it has been recycled and melted down,” explains Peter Stigson, research an business developer at RISE and Chair of the Enhanced Traceability expert group within the Delegation for Circular Economy. “If high-alloy steel becomes rebar, we have not succeeded in maintaining the value of the resource. An important aspect of traceability is the ability to preserve the value of different materials and avoid downcycling.”
Other issues that need attention include: how do we know that the material, in its previous incarnation, was not associated with child labour, starvation wages or illegal activities?
“The social aspects of a material’s origin cannot be ignored if you claim to be a sustainable company, or if you want to be a consumer who makes sustainable choices.”
Many benefits of traceability
Effective traceability would also provide a number of other benefits, such as simpler recycled material flows between different industries, transparency between producers, suppliers and end consumers, and greater societal understanding about the economic, ecological and social values of resource and material flows. It would also provide synergies with other circular economy tools such as life cycle analysis (LCA), life cycle cost (LCC), mass balance and carbon and water footprint measurement.
But the question is: how can a powerful traceability system be created? And what is important to consider for it to lead to the most sustainable society possible?
How the traceability system should be created
To achieve optimal traceability, we must first clarify what we mean when we say a material is ‘traceable’. The expert group has chosen to define traceability as follows: when requested and verifiable information is available at every stage of the value chain and during the life of the product.
“The traceability of a large number of different materials and products is highly complex, so we must be careful to not create a traceability system that becomes more complex than it needs to be. That’s why we use the word requested.” By that, we mean the new regulations should not collect more information than what is actually requested. At the same time, however, consideration must be given to what may be requested in a few years’ time, because what if it turns out later that a certain additive is carcinogenic or harmful in some other way. It will then be important to be able to trace backwards and remove it from the material flows.
A common nomenclature needs to be employed to establish good dialogue and understanding between different operators
The need for a single point of information
“At present, there is no single organisation responsible for collecting, processing, saving and communicating the traceability of materials,” says Stigson. “Although traceability systems are developed within individual industries, the problem is that each system uses its own limits, units, classifications, and so on, all based on its own needs. A common nomenclature needs to be employed to establish good dialogue and understanding between different operators, otherwise communication and data transfer are significantly more difficult, which ultimately has a negative effect on resource-efficient and circular management of resources.”
There are two options for creating an international and cross-industry traceability system:
1. A common traceability system with clearly defined units and classifications that everyone must follow.
2. A common framework that translates and interconnects traceability systems from different industries and countries.
“Different industries have considerably different needs, so those of us in the expert group recommend the latter option. On the other hand, a ‘single point of information’ is required – a single organisation with the responsibility and mandate to manage differences in terms of information that must be available, depending on the type of product, type of material, and location in the supply network.”
Development at EU level: Digital passports for products
Several initiatives have been started at EU level to improve traceability, although it is too early to say precisely what this will lead to. In its 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission has identified the traceability of product and material information in value chains as an important prerequisite for the circular economy.
"The need to introduce a number of instruments has been recognised, such as digital product passports; the idea being that product information will accompany the product.”
For Sweden, it is important to drive this development forwards. The final report of the expert group on traceability provides a long list of suggestions for Swedish politicians on how to move forward:
- Sweden shall act within the EU and internationally to ensure that information transfer in value chains and between different operators can be carried out cost-effectively.
- Sweden shall identify a strategy to contribute to development within the EU and identify opportunities to nationally accelerate enhanced traceability where gaps exist in current initiatives under development in the EU.
- New knowledge in the area shall be generated through research and pilot projects.
- Identify which industries or resource flows in Sweden can serve as pilots to learn how traceability can be enhanced and investigate how they will be affected by future instruments. This should be based on priority materials or sectors where enhanced traceability is most important.
Would you like to learn more? How RISE can contribute
RISE wants to contribute to collaborations where circularity and resource-efficiency develop as positively and sustainably as possible.
If you work in an organisation that wants to strengthen the sustainability of your resource and material use, contact us. We offer everything from support in measurability and traceability, inspirational lectures and workshops to business and operations development related to the area.