04 March 2024

There are hundreds of definitions of circular economy in the world, which leads to confusion. A new ISO standard with a definition that is widely accepted and disseminated will remedy the situation. Researchers at Linköping University have actively contributed to the new standard.

Professor Mattias Lindahl deltar i arbetet med att lägga de sista pusselbitarna till en internationell ISO-standard för cirkulär ekonomi. Thor Balkhed
The new series of standards is called “ISO 59000” and several of its documents are currently under consideration in a large number of countries. The series is expected to be significant, as the circular economy is increasingly on the agenda of companies around the world. The work is led by AFNOR, France’s equivalent to the Swedish Institute for Standards (SIS). More than 90 countries are taking part in the initiative.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed Professor Mattias Lindahl. “I think electronics and vehicle manufacturers will be the first to adopt this standard. I can already see that there’s a demand. These companies have long been asking for a common standard,” says Mattias Lindahl, professor in product-related environmental work at Linköping University.

Mattias Lindahl is a member of the government advisory body, the Swedish Circular Economy Delegation, and chair of the SIS technical committee (SIS/TK 616) that is working on the new standard.

The concept of a circular economy involves managing products and resources from a life cycle perspective. From sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing, use, reuse and finally recycling.

“It means always trying to ensure that the value of a product or material is not lost. First by being able to reuse the product without any need for processing, then by, for example, rebuilding it. Finally, the material value of the product remains, for example, plastic or metal, which can become new products,” explains Mattias Lindahl.

The demand for a circular economy is growing in line with increasing awareness of the limited resources of the Earth, of overconsumption and of the combined environmental impact of various products. Understanding has also increased for the economic aspects of circular solutions, that they are cost-effective over time.

Circular economy is becoming
increasingly strategically
important for companies 

“A key motivating factor for the ISO standard has been to try to reach consensus and reduce the risk of misunderstandings. The circular economy is becoming increasingly strategically important for companies. Reducing the risk of greenwashing is also a driving force,” says Mattias Lindahl.

Greenwashing involves the marketing of a business or activity as environmentally friendly, highlighting measures that may be less significant than the environmental degradation that the activity also gives rise to.

Mattias Lindahl has been involved in the design of several ISO standards since he received his PhD some 20 years ago.

“As a researcher, I can be neutral and provide input that a company, a government or any other interest group cannot. That’s why universities are needed in the work on standardisation.”

The standard has been designed with the entire world market in mind. However, this does not mean that all actors and countries will choose to comply with the standardisation requirements.

The major players usually
follow ISO standards.
It’s a seal of quality 

“It may take time. You might have your own guidelines, or you might not have the right conditions. However, the major players usually follow ISO standards. It’s a seal of quality.”

What are the benefits of ISO standardisation of the circular economy?
“There are too many definitions of circular economy today. A compilation from 2017 showed 114 different definitions worldwide, but there are many more. It’s difficult for both manufacturers and customers to do the right thing. We need a strong and clearly defined standard that the industries can adhere to. The ISO standard is an important piece of the puzzle because it’s internationally accepted.”

But a sustainable manufacturing process is not just about the management of our resources and the climate:

“The ISO standard is also a support that organisations benefit from in collaboration with others and in innovation. For example, the standard’s definitions of key concepts provide a basis for a common language and can trigger new ideas,” adds Mattias Lindahl.

Research from Linköping University has contributed to several formulations in the ISO 59000 documents. Among other things, Mattias Lindahl has added definitions of key concepts such as circular economy and value network.

“We call it the value network, a concept that we have introduced into the new standard. Previously, people often talked about value chains. But we see that you have to view the companies and their products from a network perspective, where products and resources can flow between different value chains over time,” says Mattias Lindahl.
He notes that a circular economy requires action from many stakeholders at the same time. 

“A single actor can’t do this alone. In general, many individual business models will remain linear. But together and over time they can create more circular solutions through the flow of products and resources,” says Mattias Lindahl.
Photo credit Thor Balkhed

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