Going Circular By Design

Graphic image by Wee Viraporn, Thailand.

HELSINKI, Finland, June 15, 2017 (Maximpact.com News ) – “Circular material use and smart products design hold a promise of substantially reducing the environmental burden of production and consumption, but it requires fundamental shifts in our resource use patterns,” finds a new report launched at the World Circular Economy Forum 2017 (WCEF2017) last week in Helsinki.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) report published June 6 stresses that circular business models cannot rely on smarter product design alone, but also will require the development of related support services and recycling infrastructure.

In their report, authors Mieke De Schoenmakere of the EEA and Jeroen Gillabel of the research and technology organization VITO, acknowledge that there will be pain as Europe moves from a linear to a circular economy.

“Reconfiguring societal systems requires innovation across a wide range of sectors – from farming to finance,” they write.

“It includes not only development of new technologies, but also of novel social practices and business models, and changing of consumer behavior, beliefs and basic values. This will inevitably create tension and produce a mix of societal costs and benefits, falling unevenly on different groups,” the report states.

The authors conclude, “The creative destruction inherent in entrepreneurial innovation will affect jobs and economic interests, creating conflict and power struggles.”

Currently, product design is based on the linear “make-use-dispose” model of production, which depends on cheap, abundant raw materials and energy. The result is growing environmental problems, such as increased waste, rising carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.

The circular economy holds the promise of more efficient and sustainable material use. Keys to unlocking this shift are resource efficiency and waste reduction by improving the ability to reuse, repair, or recycle products, which are expected to encourage product design innovations.

The authors suggest that the value of materials and products should be kept as high as possible for as long as possible. This reduces the need for new materials and energy and can lead to lower carbon emissions. It also lowers the environmental pressures linked to the life-cycle of products – from the extraction of raw materials, through the energy used to produce the goods, and their use, to their disposal in waste dumps or incinerators.

Participants in the World Circular Economy Forum 2017 networking at the Marketplace sit on repurposed shipping pallets. June 6, 2017 Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Sari Gustafsson/Sitra) Posted for media use.

Launched at the first-ever World Circular Economy Forum 2017 (WCEF2017) earlier this month in Helsinki, the EEA report ‘Circular by design – products in the circular economy,’ looks at what drives product design and how emerging production and consumption trends can enhance or hinder more circular and efficient use of materials.

All of these issues were explored at the forum, where close to 1,500 participants from more than 100 countries attended plenary and parallel sessions showcasing circular economy solutions for business, cities and finance.

WCEF 2017 was organized by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and the Finnish Ministries of Environment, Foreign Affairs, and Economic Affairs and Employment, with seven co-organizers, including the European Commission and the UN Environment Programme.

In an image-based web page summarizing “10 key takeaways” from the forum, Timo Mäkelä, Sitra’s senior advisor on the carbon-neutral circular economy states, “Global use of natural resources threatens to exceed the carrying capacity of our planet. The circular economy offers an avenue to new kind of growth and jobs while saving our environment and its natural resources.”

Reporting on the forum for Sitra, journalist David J. Cord recounted the efforts of the Finnish-Swedish firm Stora Enso to expand what a tree can do.

Stora Enso is a provider of renewable solutions in packaging, biomaterials, wooden constructions and paper on global markets.

Stora Enso CEO Karl-Henrik Sundström explained that wood can be both recycled and renewed. Stora Enso breaks down wood fibres into separate tiny components which can be rebuilt into new materials. They can be used to create cars, planes or even bottles.

Sundström said, “We can make materials intelligent, like packages that tell us where they’ve been, where they are, what’s inside and if its fresh. We’re even working on solar panels and paper which can store energy – all made from wood.”

Neste Corporation, an oil refining and marketing company located in Espoo, Finland, aims to be the world’s leading biofuel producer in the circular economy.

At the forum, Neste President and CEO Matti Lievonen explained that the company is focusing its raw materials research on waste plastics as a substitute for crude oil in the manufacture of oil products.

“In practice, our business, based on renewable products and circular economics, is eating away at our traditional business operations. This is a sacrifice that many did not believe in at first,” said Lievonen. “But when it comes to the question of what kind of planet we will leave to future generations, the transition to sustainable lifestyles cannot be held back.”

The company already produces enough Neste MY Renewable Diesel, produced of waste and residues, to power more than two million cars for a year. This will enable Neste’s customers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by almost seven million tons this year.

Among the most important new raw materials of the future that Neste is interested are residues from the forestry industry, algae, and waste plastics.

All of the sessions at the World Circular Economy Forum 2017 were live streamed, and the video recordings are available on the WCEF2017 website along with a short video summarizing the meeting.

The EEA report finds that although the linear economy may be deeply entrenched right now, emerging production and consumption trends indicate that the role of products in society is changing, with potential benefits for circular material use.

New technologies, such as 3D printing, can reduce the number of materials used in a product and can be used to print spare parts, stimulating the repair of products. Yet, such developments can be a barrier to recycling if the technology leads to complex mixtures of different materials being integrated into one product.

The report does not attempt to evaluate established policy, as set forth in the European Commission’s 2015 Circular Economy Package. Instead, it aims to inform and stimulate future initiatives.

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