12 June 2019
The 3rd annual World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) was held in sunny Helsinki on 3-5 June. The event brought together over 2,000 key circular economy thinkers and doers from around the world. This year the forum had a strong emphasis on the next era of the circular economy and scaling up the transition.
Looking back to the event and all the heard messages, there are a few main messages worth highlighting. Everything started from The Finnish Innovation Fund SITRA`s President Mikko Kosonen presenting his three points towards the circular economy. I think this, in fact, summarised the whole WCEF very well.
The viewpoint that without global agreements and subsidies, the needed change won`t be fast enough, was very common. But is our current culture of making global agreements really good enough, to create globally binding common agreement? There is the Paris agreement but what are the next steps? On the other hand, many speakers from the industry sector told that business environment has to be more clear and predictable. In vague situation, nothing happens or new solutions will be introduced to the market, which might rather create confusion and harm than solve the issues. So what are the next big steps is THE question?
For me, one of the strongest comments was Dutch Environmental Minister Stientje van Veldhoven`s comment, that no country government will ever limit the economic growth, but the solution has to be to replace the most polluting things with better options. So does this mean consumption will continue to growth but in a circular way? Is this really enough? My biggest thought of all this was, maybe this is the first really honest message, but is this the right message to the consumers? Personally I`m afraid of these kind of comments.
Another common message was, that every big company in the world wants to be carbon neutral, use only renewable and/or recycled resources, reduce material consumption, use renewable energy etc. by 2025-2030. So why bother to announce this while everyone HAS to do that. That’s a must! Most importantly, our planet demands it.
I have a big problem with this energy topic. Per Klevnäs, who had a really good and clear presentation, spoke about a very interesting topic concerning Industrial Transformation (Cement, Chemical and Steel industries). Transition to net zero emissions through Circular Economy requires more than three times more electricity. Hold on, three times more!?
Let`s think for a minute about other things we are currently doing and the effect of these actions. I will give you an example from Finland. In Finland we are burning a fair amount of our waste into energy. In the future, we want to recycle all the collected plastics, so practically waste burning will be very difficult as the burning value without the plastics will decline to a too low level. Practically, this could mean an end to the burning of waste at some stage. Recycling will take an important ingredient away for burning facilities and from industry energy sources, for example in Finland for the paper industry. We are not eager to burn wood, as that is needed by the Forest industry to develop new products to replace for example cotton based materials and bio-based plastics. Moreover, there is a limited amount of wood to be used, and it should not be cut down more than its annual growth due to climate change. We also need to stop burning coal, oil, gas and biomass (peat) for energy, as soon as possible. So what is left; nuclear power, sun, wind and geothermal heat without forgetting the reduction of energy consumption and the vast variety of new developments. Many people are against nuclear power which I don`t understand at all. Either way, in Finland, we need to buy a substantial amount of energy from abroad in order to get through cold winters. I want to see the time when paper mill is running throughout the year with wind power. So how these topics can be fit together? More energy needed and increasingly limited sources?
It was also an eye opening message that the world is only 9.1% circular. This means that only that 9.1% of material rotates in the systems. That is a very low number.
I started to think about biodegradable polymers. Big part of those is coming from oil, because the technical properties are not good enough without oil based materials. So in this case, is this circular loop starting from the oil and ending back to the ground? What is the meaning of oil-based biodegradable polymers? Why are these even allowed? Bio-based is clear. It starts from renewable resource and land, turning to biomass, water and CO2.
There was also a nice new innovation presented by the Carlsberg Foundation. You no more need the plastics shrink film to hold together a six pack of beers. Instead the cans are glued together with glue drops. This is a really great way of reducing the amount of material, as well as emissions.
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland’s President Antti Vasara presented their view on new materials. He started his presentation by saying, that half of the plastic waste is derived from packaging. Their message was, that plastics should be replaced and the life cycle effect of plastic packaging can be cut in half by 2030. They argue that one of the key replacement materials will be a three layer structure of thermoplastic cellulose. Middle layer will be nanocellulose. Of course, some real life cycle analyses (LCA) data would have been helpful. Last time when the world was strongly in nano was the time of asbestos. Hopefully now all the relevant analyses have been done.
I would have expected some stronger evidence of cutting the life cycle effect of plastic packaging to half. Now only the picture of that miracle cellulose film stayed in my mind. Truth is anyway, that good recycling and material efficiency can lower the life cycle emissions to half and that the life cycle effect of plastic is nothing compared to food waste, which is always important to keep in mind.
As last, but definitely not the least, point I remember from this WCEF 2019 are the discussions about the investments and funding. Many organizations informed how much they had already invested in the circular solutions. A representative of the European Union said that during the last three years, they have invested 10 billion euros to the circular development. Where can this be seen and where has this money been invested? This was a much more difficult question.
The amount of money, invested during the next two decades in the circularity has to be huge, much much more than today. At the same time, the costs for producing current products will increase, no doubt of that. It can be said that without huge investments the emissions cannot be cut.
But what does all of this mean for the packaging industry and for the consumer goods industry? How are we able to build our businesses towards more sustainable future? I will share my views with you in the next blog post.