Published 2018-05-24

This post is also available in Swedish

Need or want — a sensible question

She likes to call herself, albeit with a smile, a ‘grumpy old woman’.
‘For me, the personal often merges with the professional, and to be really honest, I live and breathe waste and resource issues.’

Evalena Blomqvist is a significant person in the area of sustainability. As such, she was of course included among the country’s 101 most powerful people in sustainability when the list was recently drawn up. However, she herself claims that it is all her co-workers who have earned the place of honour.

Her modesty is probably uncalled-for.

With her position as Programme Director of both Mistra Closing the Loop and RE:Source, two major research programmes focusing on waste and resource management, she is undoubtedly worthy of her high ranking on the list.

She is, however, a slightly contradictory person, not least because she likes to describe herself as a grumpy old woman, while what most strikes anyone who has a conversation with her is her laughter. However, it is true that some grumpiness is sometimes discernible behind the smile. This happens, in particular, when she starts saying that everyone knows what needs doing to make society more resource-efficient, while most people choose to wait for someone else to do the job. She calls this phenomenon ‘somebodyelseism’.

She becomes equally annoyed when issues related to reuse are simplified.

‘If we’re to make better use of Earth’s resources, something considerably bigger is needed than just buying second-hand clothes and gadgets more. Reuse definitely isn’t wrong, but if we think we can solve the problem that easily, we’re mistaken. To meet the challenge, we must cope with the complexity of the whole issue.’

To say it was by chance that Blomqvist found herself in such a hands-on research area as waste and resource management would be incorrect. But she did start at the opposite end.

‘For many years, I went in for basic academic research. After getting my PhD at Umeå University, I was a postdoc at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and in both places, the research was about dioxins. Then I dug deeper and deeper into the subject and tested all imaginable theories about why they arise — without really reaching a proper answer.’

Finally, she felt she had had enough, and remembers exactly when this happened.

‘I was attending a conference in Barcelona, with masses of successful researchers, when I suddenly realised that I already knew in advance exactly what each of them would say. Everyone does research to prove their theory. I decided there and then that I had to do something else.’

Instead, she applied to what is now part of the RISE Research Institutes of Sweden group, and was then known as SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden. There, she tackled waste issues in a broad perspective. The inducement was that the group had formulated a clear goal for its work on waste a couple of years earlier. One of the requirements was then that it would benefit business and society.

‘The approach suited me. That doesn’t mean I’m critical of academic research, but there has to be someone who transforms the research results into benefits. And that’s what we’re trying to do, even if we don’t always have all the answers, and although things therefore don’t always turn out exactly as we expected.’

When Blomqvist started working on waste issues at RISE, waste was something that belonged to society’s downside.

‘In the early 2000s, we started talking to funding authorities about the need to establish a centre around resource and waste management. At that time, they didn’t understand the potential for growth and competitiveness in this area. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop, and since then we’ve made tremendous progress. We’ve gone from looking at waste as something disgusting to regarding it as a resource.’

With the advent of the ‘circular economy’ concept, the area is now hot and everyone realises that resource-efficient solutions belong to the future and to sustainable growth.

‘Today, the issue has come so much to the fore that it’s now becoming hard to keep track of all the good intentions. Unfortunately, the insight isn’t very profound, although there’s now a basic understanding among both politicians and companies that this is an important area if we’re to create a more resource-efficient society.’

In Blomqvist’s opinion, another obstacle to success is the somewhat clueless naivety that often hides behind the talk about there being no waste, just lots of unused resources.

‘Then I become the grumpy old woman again. If we simplify the challenge facing us, we overlook the fact that a new departure must be based on a new view of ownership and what we do with the materials we use.’

At the same time, the naivety has caused many Swedes to believe we are doing just fine because we sort our household waste.

‘But the truth is, the only thing we’re blooming good at is overexploiting Earth’s resources.’

Instead, she wants to turn the concept upside down. The important thing is not to collect by-products and residual waste; the solution is to use our material resources optimally from the start.

‘Recycling of old cars is a clear example of when we mean well, but get it wrong.’

What she is referring to is that, early on, Sweden had a directive that 95 per cent of cars left at scrapyards had to be recycled. The consequence of the ambitious goal was that the industry developed effective methods to reuse the huge amounts of material, but skipped the metals the vehicles contained in only small amounts — which are the ones we truly should recycle precisely because they exist in limited quantities.

‘We simply focus on quantity instead of value. In practice, this means there’s a gold nugget in every car that nobody’s looking for. At the moment there’s also a risk that we’re set to make the same mistake in the construction industry. Rather, the goal must be to obtain the greatest possible material value out of waste.’

Blomqvist does not want to accuse those who once made the decisions. Making mistakes is part of the process of change, she believes.

‘But to be able to manage our mistakes, we must have policy instruments that drive and join in development, instead of locking us into old assumptions.’

She also wants to change the view of what threatens the climate. In today’s debate, it is as if what comes out of exhaust pipes in gaseous form is the only thing that adversely affects the climate. Climate effects due to inefficient utilisation of resources in all forms are not discussed, and are an issue that usually falls under society’s radar.

‘If anything is climate idiocy, that is.’

But she would really rather highlight existing success stories. One of these stories is about the changes that have taken place in the paper and pulp industry.

‘When I was working on dioxins, we came down hard on the industry. That made the then Minister for the Environment, Birgitta Dahl — who, incidentally, is one of my great idols in life — to intervene and insist on emissions being minimised. The industry claimed it would go under, but she stood firm and countered with: “You can manage this.”’

And history shows that Birgitta Dahl was right; it was possible to remove both chlorine and dioxins, which in turn led to Sweden’s forest and paper industries becoming world-leading. And that, in turn, has meant that industry is now unanimous in agreeing that changes are both necessary and, in many cases, positive for companies’ development.

‘Politicians must venture to make the same kinds of demands again, but now what they should focus on is the use of secondary raw materials.’

The problem is not insufficient willpower or inadequate knowledge. Rather, it is that the solution lies so far beyond Sweden’s control that a certain resignation steals up on decision makers at times.

‘But I refuse to give up. Instead, I think life and the necessary changes are like a ketchup bottle. You shake and shake and nothing happens, and then you shake again and suddenly it all comes at once.’

One of the first people to start shaking the bottle in this area was Mistra, in 2012, by launching the Closing the Loop research programme. This was the first real scrutiny to take place in the research field of materials recycling.

‘Mistra’s often quick to respond to new issues, which is cool.’

The door then opened by Mistra remains ajar, resulting in a series of new initiatives in the area. First, Mistra has invested another SEK 88 million in a second round of Closing the Loop. Second, Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and the Swedish Research Council Formas are jointly funding the 12-year RE:Source innovation programme — which is headed by Evalena Blomqvist.

‘It’s the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. Here, we’ve been able to take a holistic approach to waste and resource utilisation, although the programme sometimes strikes me as disagreeably large. However, the big difference from previous initiatives is that we can now look at a great variety of aspects, from political and corporate to personal. This means that we now have the opportunity to raise the issue to the level required for us to be able to take significant steps forward.’

In ten years’ time, Blomqvist hopes we will have brought about a real change in attitudes towards resource efficiency and waste. An essential step in this direction is that all the operators have begun to make plans for their own use of materials, both primary and secondary.

‘At a more philosophical level, I hope that reduced consumption will make us less stressed. One way to get there is to do as my family has done in recent years, every time we’re about to buy anything: first, we think about whether it’s something we need or just want. Most purchases then don’t get made, and we get lots more time for things other than tidying-up and cleaning.’

Blomqvist offers a more surprising vision of the future just as the interview is about to end.

‘My firm conviction and hope are that, in ten years’ time, energy will be more or less free while materials will be many times more expensive compared with today. If this prediction comes true, it will lead to several interesting business changes. To me, it’s a natural idea, because Earth receives energy every day, while materials and metals are finite.

‘It would help us create a world where the year’s resources haven’t already been consumed by the end of March.’

Text: Per Westergård