More reusing is necessary because the future is circular

Part of a series of business columns in Danish newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende
Author: Camilla Haustrup Hermansen, Director of Business Development
Published: 01.09.2019

Every time we throw waste in the bin, valuable resources get lost. Therefore, it goes without saying that the best thing to do is to completely avoid creating waste – which is easy to say, but hard to live by. Especially with the lifestyle most of us benefit from in Denmark.

In companies, waste is typically regarded as a problem or an expense. But here, waste can also turn out to be a valuable resource that can recycled. The challenge is that we have grown accustomed to the linear economic model, where the production of an item usually starts with the extraction of new resources. The raw material is processed into a product which is used or consumed and its lifetime then ends as unwanted waste. Seemingly, the model has worked impeccably over several generations – at least until now where so much pressure is put on the Earth’s resources that we have to find new models for our consumption and production.

Whether we want it or not, we are facing a paradigm shift in our basic views and thoughts about waste, materials and production. Analyses show that if everyone lived the way Danes do today, it would require resources equivalent to four Earths. Unbelievable – four Earths! Plainly, our consumption creates an overlay of the Earth’s resources, and this sets the warning bells ringing. It is simply not realistic to think that we can continue without changing the throwaway culture as we know it day.

Thankfully, there is another, more sustainable economic model that will require a major, societal transition. Circular economy is the name of the sustainable alternative to the linear economy. It is another way of thinking production and consumption, and it is both commercial and  environmentally sustainable. In an ideal world, this model creates no waste.

In circular thinking, keeping valuable materials and products in the economic circuit as long as possible has the highest priority. Therefore, a more circular economy is not only about recycling waste, but it is also about waste prevention through for instance reuse, repairs and generally speaking an extended lifetime for products. This places new demands on all parties who are in contact with the products. For instance, it places demands on companies to sharpen their focus on designing solutions that can last longer, that only contain components which can be separated easily after use and consist of materials that can be identified, sorted and thus recycled easily.

However, the goal should never just be recycling to begin with. As such, there is a value hierarchy that forces the parties to investigate distinct business models, before the solution is set to recycling the materials. First and foremost, a complete prevention of waste creation must be pursued. If this is not possible, the aim should be creating a model for reuse. Reusing means that the products are used for the same purpose again. Examples are refilling an emptied water bottle, or passing on clothes that do not fit anymore to people who may benefit from them. The term recycling is used for the treatment of products in a way that makes it possible to create new raw materials from them. Aluminium and metal are two examples of materials which are melted down to become new metal afterwards. Thus, recycling takes place at the material stage while reusing takes place on the product stage. Some types of waste cannot be recycled and are instead sent to incineration. Here, the energy which is obtained from the waste is utilised for electricity and district heating. Nevertheless, incineration should be categorised as the end station for waste that can neither be reused nor recycled.

The good news is that fixed political targets have been attached to the recycling of waste. EU directives dictate that the recycling of resources from all types of packaging should be increased to 65% in 2025 and 70% in 2030 respectively. At the same time, specific targets have been set for the recycling of material types which are used for packaging. Thus, both Denmark and the rest of Europe work with concrete goals to create a more circular economy. A year ago, the Ministry of Environment and Food and the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs launched Denmark’s strategy for a circular economy under the title “More value and better environment through design, consumption and recycling”. The objective was to promote the recycling of resources and the creation of new business models in companies.

In other words, the way we design, produce, use, distribute and dispose of products has a great impact on our economy, society, climate and environment. Denmark is facing a wide-scale transition into a circular economy. To do more with less is no longer just a business decision. It is a legal obligation – and the framework is in place.

The future is circular. Now, let us get started with the process of investigating and testing new, sustainable business models that can ensure a more responsible consumption, so that we do not continue to waste valuable resources – because that is simply unbearable.

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