In a circular economy, the most important decisions are made at the start of a product’s life. Material development and product and process design are key considerations when producing new products for our society.
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What is it about?
Our world is complex, as are the materials and products circulating in it. Materials, such as ultra-light structures and smart coatings, are developed to meet the needs of different functions. New technical features are sought for products.
To ensure a well-functioning circular economy, the entire life cycle of a product or material should be considered at the very beginning of its life: how to recover and reuse excess or residue materials at different stages and how to use various composite materials in new products once they have reached the end of their useful life.
In an industrial circular economy, natural resources are used sparingly, products are long-lasting and repairable, and materials are recycled; all activities that constitute profitable business. Industrial loops should be based on the sustainable use of natural resources, extending product life through maintenance and repairs, and returning back to the cycle waste materials generated during processing and manufacturing, as well as materials from products that have reached the end of their useful life.
In accordance with the principles of a circular economy, anticipation and early stages of product life cycles play a key role: land use and spatial planning, process design, architectural design, structural engineering, material development and product design.
What do we do?
Our work on industrial loops focuses on reducing waste and losses in the processing industry. Industrial side streams can be used in other industrial processes. Finland’s strong technological expertise enables enhancing the efficiency of loops. This operating model is highly developed at eco-industrial parks, such as the one in Kemi-Tornio. The basic idea is that waste and residues from one facility can be used as raw material in another facility, reducing the need for virgin resources.
Critical and rare materials and their availability promote the circular economy. In a changing world, we have to consider whether it would make more ecological and economic sense to start reusing existing materials more efficiently instead of searching for natural resources that are becoming increasingly difficult to access. These are some of the issues we are addressing in the SERRA project with the University of Jyväskylä and in the battery ecosystem project lead by the Council of Tampere Region.
Finland’s abundant renewable forest resources are an important reason for developing forest-based solutions for the bioeconomy and the circular economy. They are also vital to our national economy. The goal is that high-quality forestry and the forest industry will make Finland a circular bioeconomy leader. Our project on forest-based loops focuses on creating new value from forest-based raw materials. For the national economy, it would be important to keep the value chain as Finnish as possible and sell products with high added value to international markets. New service business models are also part of this system.
Urbanisation is a global megatrend. According to projections, up to four in five people in Finland will be living in cities in the near future. Globally, the corresponding share will be approximately 75%. Buildings account for nearly 40% of Finland’s total energy consumption. In addition, the manufacturing of construction materials is estimated to generate approximately 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, the built environment is key to achieving sustainable development goals. There is an urgent need to align the operating models in land use, land-use planning, building design and construction with circular economy principles. This is being promoted in the Circular Economy Sprint, a project focusing on the built environment.
The service economy and, for example, the Internet of Things, also play an important role in technical loops. We can extend the loops and maximise the value of materials by making smarter products and turning products into services. Sitra and the Technology Industries of Finland are implementing a joint project to help growth companies in the technology industry to move to a circular economy.
Combined with resource scarcity, the digital revolution presents an interesting opportunity, also at the international level. Finland is at the forefront of innovation. In terms of Finland’s national economy and future, it is important to constantly strive to increase the added value of products and services derived from industrial loops.
The goal is for Finland to build its competitiveness by means of sustainable material use. The demand for virgin materials will be minimised, the length of material and product life cycles will be maximised and products will be designed so that they can be repaired. Once a product has reached the end of its first useful life, opportunities for reuse will be exploited. The same rules apply to products manufactured from secondary materials. They must also continue to be repairable and recyclable. We cannot compromise on product and quality requirements in circular economy products.
Who is involved?
All industrial sectors, including the mining, processing, forest, machinery and equipment, chemical, manufacturing and construction industries, are participating in the technical loops sphere of circular economy work. New business opportunities are being created in the use of side streams, the design and material development phases, remanufacturing and the recovery of valuable materials.
To achieve change, it is absolutely essential to ensure that supply meets demand and to pay attention to the role of material development and product design. Customers must demand products suitable for a sustainable circular economy, and industry must offer them.
Where are we now?
In an industrial circular economy, natural resources are used sparingly, products are long-lasting and repairable, and materials circulate – all activities that constitute business. Ongoing projects are driving this systemic change. Being a circular economy pioneer offers huge business potential in the international market. After practising the circular economy business in the domestic market for a few years, it is now time to take up the challenge and start offering these solutions to a global market.
Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra