In Sweden, we have what it takes: a good infrastructure for waste sorting and waste collection stations. But also other things such as an ability to cooperate and aid for innovation. Still, only seven to eight percent of the Swedish economy is circular. In other words, we are wasting resources.
Marianna Lena Kambanou gestures with her hands, palms up, shaking them a little. She is aware that the concept of “circular economy” can be difficult to grasp.
“It’s a vision, but an explicitly stated vision of the EU and its member states. We need to use our resources in a much smarter way. This applies to everything from what to produce and how and what material to use, to how we use and reuse things.”
She is part of a Linköping University research group working jointly with businesses and entrepreneurs to develop functional methods to support a circular economy.
“We’re testing ideas and business models. Customers are important. We need to find models where customers are interested in reuse. As researchers, we study recurring patterns and methods that can be applied to several different operations.”
According to Marianna Lena Kambanou, we need to talk more about how circular economy and green transition will affect us.
Will some jobs cease to exist?
“Yes, and that’s one of the things our society must discuss. But there will be new jobs also. A simple example: a ban on plastic straws may lead to people working at the straw factory being made redundant. So, its production of paper straws increases. This could be better from an environmental perspective. But in the long run we need to cut down on all disposable products, and on consumption as a whole.”
Similar reasoning exists concerning reuse of already existing products. If you use a table two to three times longer before you scrap it for recycling, maybe fewer newly produced tables are needed.
“But this could result in the emergence of many new services. It all hinges on the table no longer wanted by “the family X” re-entering the system instead. Only as a last resort should it be broken into pieces and recycled.”
Such a circular model creates new services, and thereby also new jobs:
“The table must be transported to someone who will clean, repair and paint it and then maybe list it for sale. Or maybe repurpose it. And then it will perhaps be sent by courier to a buyer. New services are created along the way.”
This is where research comes in. Circular economy is about getting the most out of the resources. The transition has to be turned into good business.
“The customer must want the products. Otherwise, there’s no market. And the processes must work without generating too high costs. It might even be cheaper to buy the item new. That’s why these models must be developed.”
Together with her group, she has for instance studied the possibility of reusing workmen’s clothing.
“We’ve looked at different flows for cleaning and distributing workmen’s clothing. The concept works, for instance, when it comes to hospital shrubs. But in this case, there wasn’t much interest and it was difficult to make it a profitable business.”
They have changed their business model, and are now studying clothes repair.
“This could generate more interest. We also see a massive shortage of tailors in Sweden, which could become an important factor in a circular economy, as there’s so much waste in textile industry.”
Through an EU Horizon 2020 project, named CORALIS, the LiU researchers collaborate with three major industrial clusters in Italy, Spain and Sweden. It’s about how industries could share each other’s residual products. The LiU researchers’ task is to study pricing and how to draw up agreements between the industries.
“One man’s waste may be another man’s gold. But there are challenges. One is that it’s not certain that access to residual products can be guaranteed, as that production is irregular,” says Marianna Lena Kambanou.
The group she is working in consists of various competencies, such as eco design, management/industrial organisation and manufacturing processes. And there are many nationalities among the researchers.
“Japan, Germany, Ghana, Sweden … Greece. We are an international group. It feels very good and gives us many perspectives on these rather complex issues. I enjoy that. I’d never want to be in a monocultural setting,” she says.
She herself was born in England and grew up in Greece. Her grandparents came from Sweden and England. She did a Bachelor’s degree in Management Science and Technology in Athens, then a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Policy in Lund and then a PhD at Linköping University.
Why did you take an interest in circular economy?
“I’m seriously concerned about the future. Climate anxiety, you could say. I’ve chosen to use my working life to try to do my bit so that we can move in the right direction. Here at Linköping University, research is connected to trade and industry. I’m well-versed in entrepreneurship, and that part of circular economy. That’s where I can contribute something.”