Boosting the transition from Linear to Circular Societies

The global challenges

The public debate on climate change is growing in intensity, with increasing media coverage, and dialogues spreading at different levels through the society. Among the key messages emerging from the debate, is the need for a transition to the use of renewable energies. Typically, less emphasis is typically given to the issue of resources, a topic which is strictly connected to the climate challenges, around which we can observe a milder, but growing interest among the population. Despite scientists constantly highlighting the issue of resources limitation and the environmental pollution challenges connected to wastes, we are struggling to move away from the linear economic model involving extraction of resources, production, disposal. According to the European Environmental Agency, the per-capita consumption of energy and materials is respectively three times and two times greater than that consumed by our ancestors in 1900 – moreover, we also have to consider that there are now over 7.2 billion humans sustained by these resources, compared with 1.6 billion back in 1900. Different studies highlight the fact that humans are consuming more resources than the Earth can regenerate. The Global Footprint Network periodically updates estimates about resources consumption speed versus the capacity of the planet to regenerate the same resources. Every year the Global Footprint Network calculates the so-called “Earth Overshoot Day”, the day when the humanity’s demand for natural resources exceeds what the Earth can regenerate over the entire year – according to these calculations, in 2019 this happened on the 29th of July.

The concept of a Circular Economy, as an economic model radically moving away from the classical linear model (take-make-dispose), appears to be the solution to solve pollution and resources scarcity issues, as well as to address climate challenges. It proposes a paradigm shift towards a regenerative economic system, where wastes are eliminated, through the maximisation of reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimising the use of resource input and the creation of waste.

The full-scale deployment of a Circular Economy represents a radical change and as such, especially considering the current functioning of our economic systems, it requires innovative ways of (re)thinking the production systems and consumption.

The Circular Economy realisation can certainly be facilitated by innovation, in particular by the introduction of new technologies and through the design of innovative business models. Nevertheless, innovation strictly meant as “technology development” is not the sole fundamental driver.

Circular Economy – definitions and relationships to innovation

Is Circular Economy necessarily connected to innovation? Or is Circular Economy necessarily “innovative”? This question perhaps cannot be answered simply and very precisely as both the terms “innovation” and “circular economy” are currently disputed. In particular, the definition of Circular Economy is a matter of intense debate in the scientific literature. Critics assert that the locution and the concepts behind Circular Economy mean different things to different stakeholders. A recent article by Kirchherr et al. analyses 114 definitions, taken from peer-reviewed literature as well as other publications (e.g., the definition from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation). In the paper, Kirchherr analyses also the different core principles, including the most popular 4R (reduce, reuse, recycle, recover), which is embedded in the definition provided by the European Commission, as well as more complex, comprehensive and analytical frameworks such as the 9R. Eventually, the paper suggests an additional definition, in the attempt to formulate a more comprehensive vision, which not only includes the typical 4R principles, but also the need for a radical systemic change that is necessary to effectively implement a Circular Economy.

The realisation of the circular economy implies several changes. For example: i) behavioural changes by consumers, who need to embrace different lifestyles and consumption modes and; ii) regulatory changes, involving, for example, the introduction of public incentives or new regulations to address end-of-life products and secondary raw materials. Therefore innovation, strictly intended as “technological innovation” is not the only driver, but in specific cases is a key enabler. Potting et al.7 distinguishes three types of Circular Economy changes with regard to the use of technology in the products’ value chain:

    1. Products/services representing a completely new solution, relying heavily on technology and less on specific consumers’ behaviours. Biodegradable plastics are an example of this class, that have already taken some market shares;
    2. Products/services where technology is of minor importance, but where consumers’ behaviour is fundamental, and adaptation to a different consumption style is a key success factor. The example brought in the previously- mentioned publication is the spreading of packaging-free shops;
    3. Products/services where consumers’ style is fundamental and where the technology is the key enabler. Examples of this kind are sharing economy services (e.g., bikes, cars and even dishwashers), where the use of digital platforms facilitate the implementation of the business model.

Several large-scale initiatives exist to support innovation in Circular Economy. For example, in Europe, the Horizon 2020 programme intends to support the implementation of the Circular Economy package. Other public-private-partnerships such as SPIRE (Sustainable Process Industry through Resource and Energy Efficiency) cover many aspects especially relating to industries. In the following paragraph, a more in-depth view on the EIT RawMaterials will be given.

EIT RawMaterials as one of the most active actors in the Circular Economy in Europe

EIT RawMaterials is the world’s largest community dedicated to innovation and education in the raw materials domain. EIT RawMaterials is initiated and funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union. EIT RawMaterials connects roughly 400 organizations from leading industries, universities, research and technology organizations (the so-called knowledge triangle) from more than 20 EU countries.

One of the core thematic areas covered by EIT RawMaterials is the Design of Products and Services for the Circular Economy. The partners gathered by the EIT RawMaterials are particularly active across the entire raw materials value chain of industrial minerals and metals (with emphasis on e.g., mining and recycling), and include also end-user industries (e.g., car components manufacturers and automotive industries). Within this large Innovation Community, they collaborate in implementing innovation projects and education projects.

As of 2019, the project portfolio includes almost 240 projects that are expected to result in the introduction of innovative and sustainable products, processes and services, as well as talented people who will deliver increased economic, environmental and social sustainable impacts to the European society.

EIT RawMaterials has three clear and main strategic objectives:

  1. Securing raw materials supply
  2. Designing materials solutions
  3. Closing materials loops

These fundamental objectives are closely entangled with the concept of Circular Economy and a specific strategic programme has been designed in order to achieve them.

Raw Materials and Circular Societies Lighthouse

In 2018, EIT RawMaterials launched a strategic programme called Lighthouse on Raw Materials and Circular Societies. Lighthouses are large-scale and long-term coordinated innovation initiatives that address critical and specific raw materials challenges for Europe. They are mission approaches to innovation and education challenges, directly steering EIT RawMaterials activities towards the achievement of its strategic objectives and impact Key Performance Indicators. Lighthouses are created to generate tangible solutions for societal challenges that have raw materials at their core.

The main objective of the Lighthouse is to support and boost the transition from Linear Societies to Circular ones through the support of innovative solutions to be implemented in cities and industries. The choices made by millions of consumers can support or hamper the circular societies so this Lighthouse will also deal with the education and awareness activities focused on consumers, to allow them understanding the concept of Circular Society as well as to show them the adequate patterns to ensure the transition. The industry is also a key player regarding the transition process to the Circular Society, each industry sector having different needs when it comes to resource use, waste generation and management. Resource efficiency ensuring the rational and efficient use of raw materials as well as the efficient industrial waste valorisation through industrial symbiosis approaches are absolutely key aspects to achieve circular industries. These solutions proposed by the Lighthouse programme will include:

  • new technologies
  • new educational approaches related to new skills required for this transition process
  • new educational and awareness approaches to get citizens/consumers participating and supporting this transition process
  • new methodologies to assess circularity
  • new methodologies to support the transition to Circular Cities
  • new business models
  • new circular products

This Lighthouse will develop/define/support/boost different type of solutions/initiatives to achieve the previously-mentioned main strategic objectives of the EIT RawMaterials from the perspective of the Circular Societies:

  1. Securing raw materials supply: The Raw Materials and Circular Societies Lighthouse supports this from the secondary raw materials perspective, including recycling and industrial waste valorisation;
  2. Designing materials solutions: The Raw Materials and Circular Societies Lighthouse designs solutions to address the whole life cycle in a systemic way, from raw materials supply to materials innovation, advanced materials, innovative products, product-service systems, processes, design of products for circularity, new business models, new policy measures, new taxation approaches, and new education and awareness methodologies;
  3. Closing material loops: The Raw Materials and Circular Societies Lighthouse defines solutions to close the loop trough the resource-efficient of processing and keeping materials and products in the society as long as possible, using new product design approaches for circularity, recycling, reuse, repairing, remanufacturing. This Lighthouse will also engage with students (especially children and young people), consumers of final products and industrial sectors consumers of raw materials.

Raw Materials and Circular Societies Lighthouse portfolio overview

We previously mentioned that the current portfolio of the EIT RawMaterials includes around 240 projects. The portfolio comprises:

  • Innovation projects: also called “Upscaling projects”, these are collaborative projects of larger size and budget (1-3 million euros), lasting 2-3 years, where industries, universities and academia are working in order to develop a new process, service or product to be launched on the market at least 3 years after the end of the project itself;
  • Higher education (Master and PhD) projects, also implemented through collaborative consortia, where partners design and implement innovative education programmes with particular emphasis on entrepreneurial skills;
  • Lifelong learning projects, aiming at delivering specific courses for professionals in areas of intense industry demand;
  • Wider Society Learning projects, addressing the general public, and school children at different levels.

In the period from 2016 to 2018, 103 projects addressed the Lighthouse on Raw Materials and Circular Society through the above-listed instruments. The total funding committed to these projects is roughly EUR 73.5 million, out of which 48 dedicated to upscaling projects. The areas covered within the Lighthouse include:

  1. New modelling tools for circularity assessment/measurement and new Life Cycle Assessment tools
  2. Data management and Materials Flow Analysis tools for the circular economy
  3. Industrial Symbiosis and industrial wastes valorisation
  4. Recycling and innovative solutions for end-of-life products
  5. Resources efficiency and in metallurgical processes
  6. Education for the Circular Societies

On top of these projects, the EIT RawMaterials is also investing a yearly budget of around EUR 3 million to support innovative start-ups in several areas that are relevant to the Circular Societies programme. In three years, more than 60 companies relevant for Circular Societies have been supported both financially and through business coaching via the Booster, Accelerator and Business Idea Competitions organised by the EIT RawMaterials. The flourishing of start-ups addressing Circular Societies and thus embracing the concept of a Circular Economy tells us that innovation is an important push to this new revolution and that the sector is an attractive one for young entrepreneurs willing not only to make a profitable business but also to make a positive contribution to the planet.