Circular Economy

How businesses can tackle the plastics problem

A plastic bottle is seen floating in an Adriatic sea of the island Mljet, Croatia, May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic - RC1287030070

In the circular economy, “throwaway culture” is replaced by reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink Image: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Flemming Besenbacher
Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus
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Circular Economy

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

The prospects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are promising. It is likely to offer tools to make it easier to move from the linear economic model of the past to the circular economic model, where resources remain in a closed circuit.

Identifying these solutions is an important first step, but unleashing their full potential requires knowledge and skills that we must start building. This entails new networks across the entire value chain, and concrete advice on how to create robust circular business models.

Before industrialization, almost everything was made from materials that were either decomposable – like wood or plants – or easy to recycle or reuse – like iron and bricks. The first, second, and third industrial revolutions changed everything. Global income per person per day rose at a compounded rate of almost 2% per year over the last 100 years, and industrialization gave us refrigeration, pasteurization and canning. It also provided us with bikes, cars, planes, and it even put us on the moon. It offered us telephones, computers, and smartphones.

However, the industrialization also created waste. Too much waste, which has caused an incredible amount of resources to be lost.

In the circular economy, “throwaway culture” is replaced by reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink, i.e. products are used several times, and materials are recycled in new products. In the circular economy, optimally, no resources are lost, but materials retain their value, and nothing is characterized as waste.

Plastics is a good example of a resource that should be reused and recycled to a much greater extent. Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues on our planet. We need to stop burning and exporting plastic waste by ensuring a much better sorting and investing in research and technological development on how to recycle more and better.

The value-chain stakeholders must cooperate far better and ensure a higher recycling rate of plastics. Banning them makes no sense, because plastic is a unique material that is suitable for reuse and recycling. These days, plastics are too often perceived negatively due to rising pollution in oceans and nature. This must of course be stopped, but since plastics has neither legs nor wings, it is also largely human behavior that we must focus on.

Growth in global plastics production

Plastics is a crucial material for our society and businesses, for our health and economy, but since plastic consumption and pollution are expected to increase significantly, we must teach ourselves to treat plastics with reason and consideration, and consider how to use them smarter tomorrow. With The New Plastics Economy initiative, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation aims at creating an economy in which plastics never turn into waste. Importantly, this initiative is fact-based and builds on strong partnerships across society.

A concrete example of how to rethink is Carlsberg’s new packaging. Carlsberg Group was celebrated around the globe for its new Snap Pack, replacing the plastic wrapping used around Carlsberg’s six packs with a pioneering technology that glues the cans together. However, equally interesting but less reported are the recycled plastics used where the material is still needed. In Sweden and Denmark, Carlsberg has introduced recycled plastic film with a recycled content between 50-100%, of which around 30% of the recycled content originates from Carlsberg’s own breweries in Europe. The remaining 70% comes primarily from post-industrial recycling, and in the future post-consumer recycled waste will also be included.

Another great example of a company that has rethought the way plastics can be used is Plastix. This small-sized Danish company has specialized in transforming fibers from fishing nets, trawls and ropes into high-quality plastic raw materials called Green Plastics. This way they reduce landfilling, combat marine pollution and the loss of valuable resources, while documenting CO2 emission savings up to 82%.

Lendager Group, a Danish company specialized in promoting circular economy within future cities, buildings and companies, has a division called UP, which works within resource optimization and upcycle product development. Upcycling is the process whereby the value of waste materials is increased through the recycling process, ideally creating a product with a longer lifespan than the original. One of the latest innovations by Lendager UP are tables made of old Carlsberg beer kegs in an elegant design by Matrikula Studio.

I recognize that most companies, especially medium and small businesses (SMEs), lack knowledge, skills, networks and capabilities to reap the potential benefits of circular product design, production processes and business models. It is a challenge for SMEs to incorporate the circular economy into their core business and strategic management because existing networks, culture, and knowledge are based on linear business partnerships. At the same time, it is a challenge for SMEs to realize the business case in applying new circular business models and technologies. That is why we need to bring together – in line with Sustainable Development Goal No 17 – businesses across sectors and value chains to share best practices, knowledge and experience, which can contribute to a circular transition.

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At the same time, circular partnerships for phosphorus, electronics, building and construction, textiles and plastics should be established, which bring together the players in innovative and transformative constellations across the value chain.

Finally, efforts should be made to promote circular business development, where SMEs are provided with circular business opportunities and co-financing for concrete advice on corporate circular potentials and the implementation of related business models.

There is much to be done, but I am an optimist. I trust in the words of Winston Churchill: a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

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Related topics:
Circular EconomySustainable DevelopmentFuture of the EnvironmentSupply Chain and Transport
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