Seminar report: From Waste to Resource – Towards a Circular Economy

On Wednesday 12 June, the Embassy of the Netherlands collaborated with Ragn-Sells and the International Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm to organise a seminar about the challenges and opportunities of circular waste management. The event consisted of lectures and panel discussions with thinkers and doers from industry, politics and the waste management sector. “How can we modernise the waste hierarchy and simultaneously galvanise the circular economy?” was the central question which the experts discussed.

From Waste to Resource

At 8:30 in the morning, Ambassador Ines Coppoolse extended a warm welcome to the participants. This seminar’s topic was yet another proof of how central the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to the work of the Embassy, she stressed. Not only as an ambassador, but also as a citizen and a mother she felt an urge to promote these goals. In the field of the circular economy, the Netherlands have a huge ambition: to become fully circular by 2050. That is an enormous challenge, Coppoolse admitted, but international cooperation can help us achieve those objectives. The Netherlands share many goals with Sweden, although our approaches sometimes differ. The “Green Deals” and the “North Sea Resources Roundabout” (of which more below) are prime examples of the Dutch approach.

ICC policy manager Margi Mataj affirmed that resource efficiency and sustainable business models are indispensable to realise the SDGs. But how do we get there? There are many opportunities in trade and commerce, yet businesses are still facing obstacles, such as too broad a definition of “waste”. It is high time for waste to be treated as a resource. And, Mataj argued, it is also a question of international trade policy and increased public–private dialogue. Lars Lindén, CEO of Ragn-Sells, affirmed that “the circular economy creeps into the achievement of all SDGs, as the driver of many changes.” Yet he hastened to add that there is no silver bullet. The key to meeting these challenges lies in diverse partnerships, which is precisely what the seminar would explore.

Seminar RagnSells

From waste hierarchy to resource hierarchy?

Elin Bergman, spokesperson for Cradlenet, briefly introduced the first speaker, asking: how useful is the waste hierarchy still? Should it perhaps turn into a resource hierarchy? This is not just a question for business, she said, but must be raised to a political level. Earlier in June, Bergman had attended the launch of the Nordic circular hotspot, which would stimulate circular business in the world’s 11th biggest economy. It is however time for a prestudy: what does business need? How can we reach out to them and inventorise their needs and wishes?

Main speaker Ad Lansink – creator of the waste hierarchy – then took to the floor to discuss his latest work. He presented a routemap of the waste hierarchy needed for a circular resource policy. Lansink designed his original waste hierarchy in 1979, inspired by the environmental problems highlighted by the Club of Rome: energy crises, lack of landfill and soil pollution. Now the topic is back on the agenda. The period 2010–2030 is marked by a scarcity of materials, climate change and geopolitical tensions, which have created growing attention for the organisation of waste management. However, Lansink emphasised, we need to adapt its preference order to a circular resource hierarchy. That means: designing for recycling, stimulating urban mining, creating consumer awareness, encouraging supply chain management, and relating waste management to broader climate policy.

Making the economy circular could cut carbon emissions by 56% in 2050. But there are key operational challenges and socioeconomic risk factors that complicate the implementation of a circular waste hierarchy, Lansink emphasised. On the one hand, we need to close loops in the process, develop new technologies and renewable energy sources, create new values, design effective business models, and share responsibility for the circular transition. Simultaneously, it is crucial to decouple economy and ecology – so that the impact of resource use declines significantly – and ensure that societal support for this transition exists. We furthermore need to resolve the dilemmas that arise from necessary (interconnected) choices, including the development of international value indications, and repair circular leaks such as stigmatisation and market failure. These are the main challenges we will have to solve in the coming years, Lansink concluded.

Ragn-Sells strategist Graham Aid then spoke about how we could best manage our (waste) resources. How do we know what is valuable? Value is context-dependent, Aid explained, which is best determined by the market. However, to function properly, this market needs steering mechanisms – which are often context-irreverent. Aid distinguished three critical issues: specific mechanisms, discounting future needs, and market information failure. Ragn-Sells shows that a strong business case and contributing to the SDGs can go hand in hand. That is a call to action for policy makers, who ought to build the SDGs into market steering mechanisms – not by incentivising specific activities, but rather by preventing specific consequences. This requires real commitments to the future, the creation of strategic resource banks, and specific waste pricing. That is not only a duty for policymakers, Aid pointed out, but also for business and research.

Robine van Dooren

Partnerships for circular business models

Robine van Dooren, project lead at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, subsequently shed light on the Green Deals approach and the North Sea Resources Roundabout (NSRR) project. This bottom-up approach of the Dutch government aims to connect companies, civil society and (local) authorities with one another in order to stimulate innovation and green growth. At its core, the goal of the Green Deals is threefold: to create new partnerships for, add visibility to and increase understanding of circular business. It does not encompass financial support, but provides participants with access to networks, high-end information and legal assistance.

The NSRR is the first internationally operative Green Deal. It seeks to facilitate the trade and transportation of secondary resources in the North Sea region. It has five current sub-projects (out of a maximum of ten), each concerning a particular (waste) resource, which run five years each. The objective of the NSSR is to search for the optimal use of possibilities within current (EU) legislation by harmonising the implementation of rules and signing trade contracts. In doing so, it also hopes to inspire other EU member states to change their practice. The next step of the project, Van Dooren promisingly concluded, will be to attract new participants, improve information sharing, and set up new cases.

Jakob Sahlén, senior environmental specialist at E.ON, could then elaborate on the role of the energy sector in circular waste management. He said energy is an enable for all other sectors, who regularly point out electrification and renewables as priorities for sustainable business. New partnerships can promote this transition. One example Sahlén mentioned is “Easy Green Living”, where E.ON helps provide sustainable residential apartments with high energy efficiency. Moreover, E.ON is cooperating with Ragn-Sells to develop waste processing plants that capture residual energy from biogas, heat and other sources. In all cases, Sahlén summarised, “the goal is to reduce negative externalities and realise new business models.”

Anna Brodowksy, vice-president for public affairs at Essity, explained how her company stimulates the circular economy. As a leading hygiene and health company that uses the SDGs as a compass, Essity has the ambition to reduce, reuse and recycle as many resources as possible. A notable example is Tork, which has developed a recycling service for paper towels that has reduced its carbon footprint by about 40%. More partnerships with multiple stakeholders – for instance, with the local authorities that are responsible for waste collection – could further promote circular business models, Brodowsky emphasised.

After that, Jan Svärd, CEO of Easymining, was joined by Ronald Hopman and Silvester Bombeeck, managers of waste companies HVC and SNB, for a panel discussion. Svärd set out the dilemma of phosphorus: it is essential as a mineral fertiliser, but it also causes widespread pollution. Easymining has developed a process to recover clean phosphorus products from sewage sludge ash (Ash2Phos) with a better recovery rate than any other known method. It is a prime example of circular waste management, Hopman affirmed, which mirrors HVC’s attempt to transform itself into a circular resource manager. It therefore invests significantly in the recovery of energy and materials from sewage sludge. SNB is going through a similar transition, Bombeeck added. The company is increasingly busy with creating raw materials from waste. And although it is now environmentally neutral, it wants to go further and have a positive impact.

David Högnelid, chief communication and marketing officer at LKAB Minerals, then highlighted the circular ambitions of the Swedish mining industry. Although it is still perceived as a linear sector, mining companies are investing in sustainable innovation to become more resource- and energy-efficient. Concretely, that means encouraging “sustainable underground mining” with digital and automatised methods, extending the production process with an integral view of resource use, and – again – developing critical raw materials from waste. LKAB now cooperates with Easymining to recover phosphorus and rare earth metals from mine waste for several separate industries.

Adapting the legal system to circularity: a political task

“It is clear that the field of sustainability has matured,” according to Jonas Borglin, CEO of The New Division, pointing towards the growing prevalence of this topic in business models. Indeed, he argued, the SDGs and their sub-goals provide 117 different business cases for sustainability. But society is getting impatient and simultaneously it is reluctant to new regulation that might infringe upon their lives. How can we solve that dilemma? That is where the panel of ex-politicians came in.

Sofia Arkelsten, former party secretary for the Moderates, and Åsa Romson, former Environment Minister, discussed how politicians could change “the current legal infrastructure which is wholly built around a linear understanding of the economy,” as Romson put it. With the emergence of the circular economy, we need a paradigm shift in regulation that we have to discuss on all levels of society. Arkelsten agreed that it demands a major change of our mindset. Since it will be complex to adapt the legal system in this manner, it will require a bipartisan political approach. Indeed, we must be more sincere and serious about the implications of using secondary resources, Romson said, which has not come down to most policymakers yet. There are three specific issues to tackle, Arkelsten pointed out: the definition of waste, the taxation system, and treatment standards.

Both speakers agreed that we need to present solutions, not problems. Yet it is easier, Arkelsten argued, to agree on the principles – such as the SDGs, which are too “fluffy” too create a policy solution on their own – than on the nitty-gritty of legislation. It is the latter, however, which brings about actual change. International deals and regulation on the global level will be necessary to have an impact. It is moreover important, Romson emphasised, to find your political champions, engage in dialogue with your opponents, and take advantage of the potential of a good example. Hopefully, countries like Finland and the Netherlands can provide inspiration and best practices to Swedish entrepreneurs, policymakers and society at large, just as this seminar intended to.