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Nordic companies converting to circular production

“Green transition” is a popular catchphrase in the business world, but there are many challenges to overcome and pitfalls to avoid.

Since 2017, the research project “Circular Economy Integration in the Nordic Industry for enhanced sustainability and competitiveness (CIRCit)” has been working to realise the Nordic Council of Ministers’ vision for Nordic companies to be leaders in circular economy and sustainable production.

Researchers in the project have been collaborating with and advising more than 300 Nordic businesses to help them transition from a linear business model to a circular one.

Plastic furniture – from the ocean

One of those companies is the furniture producer Vestre, which delivers to municipalities, parks and other outdoor public spaces. At a working meeting in Sweden, Vestre met the CIRCit researchers, and a collaboration soon developed. The company has an ambitious goal to become the world’s most sustainable furniture company, but there is a jungle to navigate in figuring out how to achieve this:

“We welcomed the collaboration with the researchers, because there are so many narratives out there telling people the best ways to undertake a green transition, along with plenty of ‘green washing’ [the practice of an organisation spending more time and money on marketing itself as environment-friendly than on actually minimising its environmental impact]. We want to be as transparent as possible so that everyone can see what we are doing. That’s why it is important that the business community is well-grounded in science, because science seeks objective truth based on the evidence currently available, which can validate the circular business model,” explains Øyvind Bjørnstad, Head of Strategy & Sustainability at Vestre.

One furniture product resulting from the CIRCit collaboration is the Coast bench, made from waste plastic collected from the shores of Norway. And this is not Vestre’s only product made from reused materials, as the company also recycles aluminium. The bench was born of a collaboration with furniture maker Ope, another one of the more than 300 companies collaborating with the CIRCit project. Photo: Nicolas Tourrenc

Coffee grounds in cosmetics

Swedish coffee producer Löfbergs is determined to run its operations sustainably. Lars Aaen Thøgersen, Chief Innovation and Circular Transformation Officer, stresses that his company has also benefitted from collaborating with the CIRCit project.

“We needed, and still need, knowledge input from our partners, from within our own industry and across other industries,” he says. “We have long had our focus on a sustainable transition, but we see the circular model as a shift to a system where we are still novices. We need to go gradually; you can’t eat an elephant in one bite. At the same time, I’m convinced it is essential to keep sight of the big goal.”

One example of a small change in Löfbergs’ production is the recycling of coffee bean husks from the roasting process, for use as 3D printer materials. Löfbergs used to send this residue off to the incinerator, amounting to 180 tonnes annually. Instead, Löfbergs now collaborates with Swedish furniture producer Sculpture to reuse the husks as a component in items ranging from eyeglass frames to chairs to tabletops.

Another change is that Löfbergs collects the coffee residue from its operations for use in cosmetics, fertilisers and biofuels. The early phases of this initiative involved, among others, the Swedish company 3TEMP, another business collaborating with the CIRCit project.  

Lars Aaen Thøgersen emphasises that it is no simple matter to restructure a company for circular production. He believes that all of society and its business models are built on linear thinking.

“The transition to more circular production has changed our mindset. We thought we were not wasting anything, but it turned out we were producing 99 per cent waste. When we consume coffee in its traditional form, we utilise less than one percent of its nutritional potential. The remaining 99 percent is coffee residue that mostly gets incinerated. This was surprising to learn but it opens up huge possibilities for making our business more sustainable. But making it part of a commercial operation immediately is more difficult.”

Löfbergs collects the coffee residue from its operations for use in cosmetics, fertilisers and biofuels. Photo: Gorm Branderup / Löfbergs.

Throughout the process, the companies have maintained close contact with the CIRCit researchers, receiving guidance and follow-up, while also interacting with other companies within the CIRCit collaboration. Both Löfbergs and Vestre encourage other companies to make the transition to a circular business model, but recommend starting small, perhaps initially with a pilot project such as Vestre’s Coast bench and Löfbergs’ recycling of coffee residue.

Circular business models are the future

Daniela Pigosso agrees with this approach. She is employed at the Technical University of Denmark and is a researcher in the CIRCit project.

“It was extremely important for us to collaborate with so many Nordic companies. That kept our research grounded in reality, you could say. Our object has been to develop tools, based on our research, for the companies to implement. We could develop the world’s best tools for a green transition, but their impact would be very limited if the companies don’t put them to use. The collaboration with the companies turned out to be a win-win situation from the very start of the project, and we have all mutually benefitted from it.”

Launched in 2017, the project has been funded jointly by NordForsk, Nordic Innovation and Nordic Energy Research, all of which are under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

What is CIRCit?

The CIRCit research project started in 2017 and has helped companies in the Nordics to decouple value creation from resource consumption, focused on both effectiveness and efficiency and encouraged sustainability-driven goal-setting and decision-making. Read about the project here and visit the project’s own website here: https://circitnord.com/

What is circular economy?

Most people know the terms recycle and reuse. A circular economy is all that and much more. Circular economy is a principle for economic activity – to maintain the value of products, materials and resources as long as possible, by utilising and reusing the resources more efficiently.
Source: regeringen.no

The Nordic Council of minister's action plan

In the period 2021 to 2024, the Nordic Council of Ministers will :

- Increase knowledge about and promote the transition to a more circular economy and non-toxic cycles. This involves efforts to promote the demand for and supply of solutions for the circular economy, not least through public procurement

- Work to make the Nordic Region a leader in circular, climate-neutral, and sustainable business models for the business sector. The purpose is to develop measures that accelerate the circular economy and carbon neutrality, such as through efforts relating to companies’ reporting on their corporate social responsibility and green data;