The circular economy alone is not adequate to ensure the sufficiency of raw materials and energy as natural resources become scarcer due to growing consumption and climate change. The direction must be towards a sustainable economy in which materials and related information and value circulate together for as long as possible. The circular economy is evolving from utilising waste and side streams towards a material circulation which is smart, innovative and value preserving. The value of materials will increase when they are provided as services. VTT's roadmap highlights the need for the energy system transition, and emphasises the atmosphere as a raw material reserve of the future.
The circular economy will come about when we move from waste treatment and recycling to long-term circulation and design out waste. A material may 'visit' several cycles during its life span, occasionally changing its form. A textile fibre could be part of a plastic product, for example, in the next stage of its cycle.
"When designing a material circulation a comprehensive vision of when and how the material or product should be reused and when it should be incinerated and the released energy and fuel gases utilised as raw materials for new materials and chemicals. Recycling by force cannot be the goal, as collection, sorting and processing require a great deal of energy," points out Raija Lantto, Principal Investigator at VTT.
Above all, we need increased energy efficiency and emission-free energy solutions. In the long term, we will move from using energy from carbon-containing raw materials – including biomass – to carbon-free energy solutions such as solar, wind and wave power, geothermal energy and, under certain conditions, nuclear power, too.
Change materials to services
We are living in a period of increasing resource scarcity, while at the same time humanity needs ever more food and water and the rising standard of living in developing countries is creating pressure to increase industrial production and consumption. The shortage of usable raw materials is increasing and their prices are rising. The importance of raw material ownership will be emphasised, which may change the rules of the game. Raw materials and other materials will become services, and consumers will purchase only the right to use them. One question is whether brand owners will be able to change their business models.
How could Finnish forest owners or pulp producers benefit from scarcity and obtain better value for their wood and pulp tonnage in the market by selling wood or pulp as a service? In practice, it will require the possibility to track and identify the raw material and material in global circulation, too. When a product comes to the end of its intended use, it will be steered by means of digital data to its next use. Initially, these solutions will admittedly be seen only in valuable materials and products: possibly in the circulation of rare and valuable metals, for example.
Material traceability and value preservation as well as various digital platform solutions and servitisation will have a key role in developing the circular economy into a sustainable one. The solutions will be used to do business and conclude agreements on the transfer of ownership or possession of raw materials, materials and products. Methods must be developed to encourage consumers to keep their products in circulation for as long as possible, while preserving their value. When incinerated with mixed waste, an organic or bio-based product will end up in the lowest level of the value hierarchy, changing into energy and emissions such as carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide - from emission to raw material
We know that 96% of living matter is comprised of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water; all these are obtained from the atmosphere. When we learn to capture these molecules in a controlled and efficient manner, we will be able to make chemicals, materials and food we need from these and from carbon dioxide emissions. When this succeeds, we will reach a new era in resource sufficiency.
Capturing and utilising atmospheric molecules will be an energy-intensive, expensive process. Therefore, an economically viable system to produce sustainable energy in sufficient amounts is a central prerequisite.
Adequate nutrition for humanity will be secured by solutions enabling food to be produced unlimited by time or place. We will be able to manufacture proteins, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins using cells in reactors from the raw materials provided by the atmosphere.
Read more in VTT's publication "Going beyond a circular economy"