Thursday 25 April 2019
The Research Foundation Flanders (FWO – Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek) organised the largest Belgian scientific congress ‘Knowledge Makers’ on December 14, 2018. More than 1,250 participants from different disciplines attended the conference and emphasized the importance of the FWO as a partner for support and finance for fundamental, groundbreaking and strategic scientific research.
Although the conference covered many different topics, this blog post focusses on one particular session: ‘The rise of the circular economy: a research agenda’. This session was organised by Prof. Steven Van Passel (University of Antwerp) and Prof. Karel van Acker (KULeuven), both promoters at the policy research center for circular economy.
The first question we ask ourselves is of course what a circular economy (CE) precisely is. A CE turns goods that are at the end of their service lives into resources for others, closing loops in industrial ecosystems and minimising waste. CE is a resource-driven concept of sustainability. It is a very recent concept promoted by the EU, several national governments and industrial actors. Prominent stakeholders include recyclers, miners, designers, material scientists, industry, consumers and policy makers.
However, the scientific and research content of the CE concept seems somewhat superficial and disorganised. Fortunately, we have the policy research center for circular economy in Flanders, which organises and performs in-depth research on CE. Common problems with research on the CE is that proponents tend to look at the world purely as an engineering system and have overlooked the economic factors in the circular economy. It can be argued that certain circular economy activities can increase overall production, partially or fully offsetting the benefits, referred to as the circular economy rebound.
During the interesting session on CE, a mix of experts with different backgrounds were brought together to discuss the opportunities and challenges of CE and to formulate a research agenda. Attending experts were: Prof. Nancy Bocken (Lund University & TU Delft) who is mainly focusing on sustainable business innovations. One of the innovations she is involved in is the ‘pay per use’ business model, where the customer pays in accordance with the intensity he uses a certain good. This kind of business model incentivizes sustainable consumption. The other expert was Prof. Jouni Korhonen (KTH Royal Institute of Technology), who is leading in the field of sustainable development research and education. A third presentation was given by Prof. Karel Van Acker (KU Leuven), formulating a research agenda towards the circular economy. The session was moderated by Prof. Steven Van Passel, environmental economist at the University of Antwerp. His research concentrates on the economic and sustainability assessment of clean technology and agricultural systems and on the interaction between economy, technology and ecology. Together with the interactions of the audience, the panel tried and succeeded in getting one step closer to drawing up a sound and well-balanced circular economy research agenda, hoping to shape our material future and reach a sustainable economy.
Three main CE strategies were defined, these strategies have to be researched in the upcoming years. The first strategy is to improve the renewability of products. This improvement would optimize the 3R principle: reuse, remanufacture, recycle. Dematerialization was defined as the second strategy. An example of such a dematerialization would be the repair economy or sharing economy. Such economies deliver services with lower material intensity. The third and last strategy is to substitute critical materials with e.g. bio-based and renewable materials. A CE will not be reached with one of the strategies. All three strategies have to be adopted, their intensity might differ dependent on the type of service or good.