Background of the research

Material recycling is increasing

Materials must be recovered and recycled with increasing accuracy. This requires input from everybody that comes in contact with the product or material’s lifecycle.

Knowledge of climate change and the diminishing of natural resources is guiding humankind from a linear economy back to a circular economy. In a linear economy raw material creates a product and the product eventually becomes waste, whereas in a circular economy one person’s waste is another person’s raw material. In circular economy products and materials are circulated for as long as they have value. Value is maintained for increasingly longer periods of time if products are created to be shared, reused and from material that can be recycled. It is in any case to be expected that material recovery will require much more in upcoming years as people wish to recover smaller and smaller amounts of material, while the amount of waste is continuously rising hand in hand with the global standard of living.

“Circular economy has an increasingly clearer impact on every single industrial actor and consumer,” emphasizes Toni Andersson, Chairman of the Material Value Chain research program’s Steering group.

Meticulous recycling as a starting point

It has been common for quite some time to store and make use of side streams in Finnish industry, either as material or as energy. Consumers in turn recycle their household goods. Andersson wishes to see an increase in household and other community waste recycling as recycling at an early stage creates cleaner waste components, which are thus easier to utilize. He says that separate collection of several waste components is, however, not always logistically economical for example in areas of dispersed settlement, and industrial sorting and processing of mixed waste may be more techno-economically efficient.

“Waste processing technology must be developed so that we will also be able to recover more usable materials from mixed waste.”

Regulations drive waste cycles

Because so far there is only a shortage of a few raw materials, waste recycling and material flows are mostly driven by national regulation. According to the EU’s prioritization principle waste production should be avoided for example with reuse, and all waste should be utilized primarily as material and alternatively as energy. Final disposal at a dump is the last option.

In the beginning of 2016 Finland was among the last EU countries to restrict placing organic substance in dumps. The tight restriction has led to growing amounts of waste being utilized as energy and with this growth, the preprocessing of burnable waste and developing technology for waste burning have become increasingly important.

“The ashes from waste burning are immensely interesting. They contain small amounts of a great deal of metals, which we could recover in the future,” says Jyri Talja, who acted as Chairman of the Steering group prior to Andersson.

New material flows and business models

Talja expects to see new methods and business models for handling material flows within a few years. A company could for instance specialize in handling one, hard-to-recover material flow.

“The material need not necessarily change owners, as a company can charge for the material processing as a service,” Talja visualizes. He expects that as circular economy advances it will drive the birth of new recycling material flows which Finnish industry can utilize profitably.

Profitability is influenced by whether the law stipulates that a material is a product or waste, as an environmental permit must be sought to make use of the latter. In the end, the materials market price is the most important factor.

“In metal recycling the greatest business risk comes from metal price fluctuation, which can be considerable. The price of plastic follows oil prices quite directly.”

Finnish technology is recycling around the world

Andersson and Talja find circular economy interesting for Finland for several reasons. Besides adding to the lifecycle of products and materials, it can also prove to be a significant source of new technology and business, and increase exports. The first Chairman of the Material Value Chain research program’s Steering group Hannu Lepomäki concurs.

“In Finland, we have incredibly good technology and a great deal of companies that can export in the large and rapidly growing markets. During the next 25 years the industry’s investment markets will be several hundreds of billions of euro and the industry relating to maintenance and use of the facilities will also be hundreds of billions,” says Lepomäki. He anticipates that export companies can gather experience by building full-scale facilities also in Finland.

“Through them new competence and new jobs will be created in Finland and naturally circular economy will also develop,” says Lepomäki.

The three Chairmen emphasize the meaning of cooperation both on the market and in research and products development.

“With collaborative ventures we attract the industry’s best talents to participate from Finnish and international universities, research institutes and companies,” Andersson sums up.

The Material Value Chain research programs’s Chairmen:

  1. Eera Waste Refining Ltd’s CEO Hannu Lepomäki, who during the research program worked as VP, Technology at BMH Technology Ltd
  2. Jyri Talja, who during the research program worked as VP, Technology at Kuusakoski Ltd
  3. Ekokem Plc’s Research and Development Manager Toni Andersson