Published 2020-03-25

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Resource wastage gets under the skin

After eight years, the Closing the Loop research programme has now reached its finish line. In early March, the results were reported at a final seminar. One message from the day was that now is the perfect time to take steps towards using more recovered materials.

For eight years, the Mistra Closing the Loop research programme has investigated how materials used in society can be recovered and reused more efficiently. This has been done in subprojects focusing on topics ranging from paper mills’ green liquor dregs (GLD) to vehicle bodies. In early March, the programme’s results were clarified at a final seminar. During the day, a recurring mantra was the value of collaboration among the various subprojects, despite their major differences.

Picture of Evalena Blomqvist

Evalena Blomqvist, programme manager at Closing the loop

‘Resource wastage is beginning to get under many people’s skin. So for those who want to boost the use of recovered materials, now’s the right time to act,’ was Programme Director Evalena Blomqvist’s message.

‘For me, one of the most instructive things was the exchange of ideas among the projects,’ said Hanna Ljungkvist Nordin, former head of the Explore project. Its assignment was to study the vehicle fleet’s material content to see how exactly recovery might be improved in that respect.

She was supported by Max Björkman, a researcher in Constructivate, a project focused on construction and demolition waste.

‘I couldn’t imagine I had anything to learn from people studying GLD! But it soon became clear that we have lots of issues in common. By starting to tackle shared challenges together, we got further than we would have done if we’d worked without one another’s support.’

‘We have to stop living as if the world’s resources were inexhaustible’

In her role as Programme Director, Blomqvist gave an opening speech at the final conference. In it, she stated that it is now time to stop digging up new raw, ‘virgin’ materials.

‘During my upbringing, I learnt to switch lights off to save energy. That’s not wrong, of course, but unlike material, energy is a resource that’s recreated. So we’ve got to stop living as if the world’s resources were inexhaustible. They just aren’t.’

This is an issue not only of resources, but of economics just as much. The value of non-recovered material is huge.

‘It’s estimated that only 5 per cent of all material used worldwide is circulated, and often with inefficient recovery and recycling methods. That, in turn, leads to losses of about 700 billion dollars a year, and the question then becomes why it’s so difficult to find a business model that works. It might be because recovery and recycling aren’t yet standard.’

However, the tone of the speech was mainly positive. A change is under way.

‘For those who want to boost the use of recovered material, now’s the right time to act. So all I can say is “Congratulations — you’re working on the world’s most important issue.”’

Twelve pleas for greater efficiency

During the final phase, Mistra Closing the Loop formulated 12 messages to the people most responsible for making recovery and recycling work better.

To industry and the municipalities, the programme addresses a request for recovered materials to start being seen as a unique resource — although they never have the same properties as newly acquired materials. Industrial companies and local authorities must learn to value the properties of recovered material, since we cannot afford the losses that occur when we convert finite raw materials into virgin materials. It is therefore important to take responsibility for clean and homogeneous material flows, and to share data so that reliable recycling loops can be created. If we do this, we can reduce the appetite for newly acquired resources.

To government agencies, the programme sends an appeal for them to foster ways of using materials that are accommodated within the Earth’s resource limits, but also for accurate risk assessments to induce more people to manage chemicals. Other messages are the need to create a market for recovered material and the necessity of a transition from collecting bulk materials alone to more sustainable recycling. To succeed, agencies must start supporting sweeping changes.

For researchers, Mistra Closing the Loop’s message concerns the need for more innovation — to enable sustainable risk decisions to be made, the right recycling methods to be chosen and investments to increase.

The researchers justify this appeal by the fact that when recovered material is part of companies’ business operations, they need knowledge to understand their risk level, responsibilities and how to share risks and profits. Greater knowledge about how to choose sustainable recovery processes to achieve high-quality material recovery is also necessary.

‘Recycling and recovery must go from niche to norm. To succeed, we must have bold leaders who are willing to move forwards, while we must stop naming and shaming those who dare to try, even if the ultimate result is sometimes wrong,’ Blomqvist says.

Asked what she thinks will be the lasting value of the programme in ten years’ time, she replies that she expects the ideas they are currently presenting to have had a real impact by then. We will, for example, have a new way of looking at risks associated with recovered and recycled materials, and companies will have accepted the message that such materials are not second-best.

‘Then it’ll be obvious to regard what we see as waste today as important materials with unique properties.’

The six stand-alone projects together composing the Closing the Loop programme:

  • Constructivate — focusing on construction and demolition waste, especially plastic and concrete.
  • Explore — studying the material content of vehicles in use and how to improve recovery and recycling.
  • EBaR — developing methods of recovering zinc and manganese from alkaline batteries.
  • CiMMREC — exploring scope for collaboration in creating recycling loops in manufacturing industry.
  • GLAD — showing that GLD, paper mills’ residual product, can be used for mining-waste remediation.
  • Mistra Fines — analysing what residue in the form of shredder fines contains, and how to recover them instead of their going to landfill. The project will not be completed until later in 2020.

See the programme’s final synthesis report here.

Text: Per Westergård