Seven steps towards a circular economy

REES, the four-year research programme, is off to a flying start with seven projects. The objective is to facilitate Swedish industry’s transition to a circular economy, in order to thus also increase its competitiveness. Mattias Lindahl is coordinating the programme.

Mattias LindahlFoto: Monica WestmanThe global middle class will soon consist of 5 billion people, and garbage dumps the world over are becoming increasingly weighed down. In REES (Resource-Efficient and Effective Solutions), the four-year programme by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, researchers at three universities – together with 12 large and small companies, two municipalities, and a couple of organisations – will produce knowledge, methods, and business models that will facilitate the transition to a circular economy.

“A more circular economy is a must. We can reduce the total throughput of resources dramatically, if instead we design products and infrastructure for sustainability, reuse, upgrading, repair and recycling,” says associate professor Mattias Lindahl of the Division for Environmental Technology and Management at LiU, who is the senior coordinator for the programme.

Great interest

Interest from industry is great; five major companies, including Volvo Cars, are participating.

“We’re taking part both to be able to form the internal development towards a circular economy, and because we have great hopes to be able to test a case in an actual environment. It’s about a new generation of plug-in hybrids in which we want to combine new technology in the form of a battery pack with a circular business model,” says Gunnar Magnusson of Volvo Cars, who has great hopes for the collaboration.

An increasing number of businesses are interested in remanufacturing – taking back a used product, pulling it apart, replacing what’s worn out and selling it again, more cheaply, in new or better condition. Remanufactured mobile phones are available on the market, as are motors, trucks, and much more. Not only have we treated resources until now as if they were limitless – previous research has also shown that a transition to a more circular approach is not only environmentally, but also economically, profitable.

A remanufactured dishwasher uses 44 percent less energy during its lifetime compared with producing a new one. A remanufactured transmission reduces total carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent.

Circular business models

Polyplank, one of the participating businesses, is already working on circular production and business models. They are producing items such as core plugs of recycled thermoplast and wood fibres, that are used for rolls of paper at paper mills. The core can be used again and again, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions by close to 90 percent, compared with traditional cores. The total life cycle costs is also reduced.

“We hope to be able to share the experiences we’ve built up over the 20 years we’ve been producing our composite products. We have an infrastructure in place for repurchasing our used products, which we recondition and sell again,” says Annika Fernlund of Polyplank AB.

But more research is needed, and the REES programme – which gathers together researchers from Chalmers, Lund University and Linköping University – is divided into seven connected projects. The first part will investigate which sectors circular products and services are most resource-efficient in, and under what circumstances. It will also study which business- and policy-related motive forces can be found in businesses that have started moving towards a circular economy. After that follow three projects that will develop concrete methods for producing products and services, new business models and policies, starting from the circular economy. Gradually, the results will also be gathered together into a whole, in order to be disseminated as efficiently as possible. This includes producing a book that can be used in instruction at universities and colleges, as well as in internal training in businesses.

Nine doctoral students

Apart from the senior researchers, the programme has recruited nine doctoral students – three at each higher education institution – who also had the opportunity to meet when the programme recently had its starting conference.

“It was interesting to listen to the senior researchers’ discussions, and to meet and get to know the other doctoral students. The REES programme is so large that we can pursue a holistic approach together. It will then be possible to contribute to a change,” says Sara Nilsson, newly recruited doctoral student at LiU’s Division for Environmental Technology and Management.