To assure the adequacy of energy and raw materials, the circular economy alone is not enough because the natural resources are becoming less owing to increasing consumption and climate change.
The aim must be to achieve a sustainable economy in which materials and related information and value circulate together for so long as possible. The circular economy is transforming from making use of waste and side streams toward a material circulation that is new, smart, and value preserving. When materials are offered as services, their value will increase. The roadmap of VTT underlines the requirement for the transition of the energy system and highlights the atmosphere as a raw material reserve of the future.
The circular economy will arise when humans change from waste treatment and recycling to long-term circulation and design out waste. It is possible that a material “visits” a number of cycles during its lifetime, sometimes varying its form. A textile fiber could be a constituent of a plastic product, for instance, 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 utilized 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.
Raija Lantto, Principal Investigator, VTT
First of all, increased energy efficiency and emission-free energy solutions are required. In the long run, humans will shift from using energy from carbon-containing raw materials—such as biomass—to carbon-free energy solutions like wind, wave, solar power, and geothermal energy and, under some conditions, nuclear power, too.
Change materials to services
Humans are living in an era of increasing resource scarcity, while at the same time humanity requires more and more water and food, and the increasing standard of living in developing countries has been exerting pressure to maximize industrial production and consumption. The scarcity of usable raw materials is increasing and their costs are getting higher. The significance of raw material ownership will be emphasized, which may alter the game rules. Raw materials and other materials will become services, and consumers will buy only the right to use them. One question is if brand owners can change their business models?
How could Finnish forest owners or pulp producers take advantage of scarcity and gain better value for their wood and pulp tonnage in the market by selling pulp or wood as a service? Practically, what is required is the option to track and identify the raw material as well as the material in global circulation. The product will be steered to its next use by means of digital data when its intended use comes to the end. At first, these solutions will certainly be seen only in valuable products and materials: probably, for instance, in the circulation of rare and valuable metals.
Value preservation and material traceability, as well as a variety of digital platform solutions and servitization, will play a vital role in developing the circular economy into a sustainable one. The solutions will be employed to do business and conclude agreements on the transfer of ownership or possession of raw materials, products, and other materials. Techniques must be developed to persuade consumers to maintain their products in circulation for as much time, while preserving their value. When a bio-based or organic product is incinerated with mixed waste, it will result in the lowest level of the value hierarchy, transforming into energy and emissions such as carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide—from emission to raw material
It is a known fact that 96% of living matter is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, water, and carbon, which are obtained from the atmosphere. Knowledge of how to capture these molecules in an efficient and controlled manner will enable humans to produce food, materials, and chemicals required from these and from the emissions of carbon dioxide. When this is successful, a new period in resource sufficiency will be achieved.
The process for capturing and utilizing atmospheric molecules will be valuable and energy-intensive. Hence, an economically feasible system to produce sustainable energy in adequate amounts is a primary requirement.
Sufficient nutrition for humanity will be secured by solutions allowing food to be produced unlimited by place or time. Mankind will be capable of producing vitamins, fats, proteins, and carbohydrates using cells in reactors from the raw materials offered by the atmosphere.