On the threshold of a circular economy

Written by Nils Torvalds on 7 November 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Innovation will bring us the future we aspire to, if we provide the transparency and freedom needed to unleash our full potential, writes Nils Torvalds.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock


Occasionally, developments take strange twists and turns. I recently met with a delegation from a company in charge of waste.

In my youth, such an activity was probably the lowest form of work you could find. In my neighbourhood, we had different dreams for our future. Some wanted to become fire fighters, some soldiers (this was just after WWII). Some wanted to become doctors, dentists or pilots. Nobody, however, dreamed of becoming the garbage man.

The company sitting in my office had taken a new and challenging turn. They had been in charge of collecting waste, but when the refugee crisis erupted, they found themselves collecting clothes for migrants coming from Africa.


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All of a sudden, they had more clothes than they could ever distribute. So, what were they to do? 

They are now setting up a factory for sorting textiles and making them into pure fibres for new clothes. The most interesting part of this endeavour is that they consider themselves to be at the forefront of development - trailblazers for a new society.

And the story becomes more interesting still. In the last few months, I have met with people from many different walks of life. There is one common feature in almost all of these meetings: they believe in innovation.

Around ten years ago, I felt increasingly irritated by all the seminars where some consultant, over and over again, spoke about innovation, without even once mentioning something that applied in the real world.

Now, I see and hear something very different; innovation is everywhere. I think this phenomenon is immensely interesting, because it touches so many strands of development and changes in the pattern of values.

“The more open and transparent society is, the easier it will be to find solutions”

The first steps in the direction of a circular economy are taken in kindergarten. The better the educational system works (and the better and better-paid teachers we have), the easier it will be to change patterns of behaviour and patterns of thought.

The more open and transparent society is, the easier it will be to find solutions.

When we speak about trust in a society - and it is a basic feature of a functioning society - we are able to check this trust with a very easy question: How do the inhabitants of your country trust the police? In Finland, this trust figure is very high. That figure correlates with an Eco-Innovation index that you can find in national reports on the implementation of environmental legislation.

So, what does this line of reasoning boil down to? The circular economy is a product of two - seemingly opposite - powers in society.

You must have the power to make the decisions, and you must have a trustworthy civil society that does not prevent you from taking these decisions. The decisions should not just look at the result.

“You must have the power to make the decisions, and you must have a trustworthy civil society that does not prevent you from taking these decisions”

I used to say that when we stand at Saint Peter’s Gate, all the problems are solved. The challenges are no longer there. In reality, you have them in all the small decisions leading up to the gate.

That is the reason the decisions should be practical and not ideological. Thereafter we have the issue of transparency. A functioning civil society rests on transparency; it is the great trust builder. It is also an accelerator for decisions.

In the Commission, the Parliament and the Council, we can technically make many wonderful decisions. However, the practicality of those decisions comes with the implementation at company level. There you face some well-known difficulties.

In the case of this waste management firm, it looks like this; you have a well-motivated workforce with a hands-on attitude. They love their job and they are - due to a good education and a right to go into the processes of production without always having an (authoritarian) boss looking over their shoulder - making continuous small innovations.

When they come to a point where the production process has to be radically changed, they are on par with the main office engineers doing the practical work of turning the process around.

We are on the cusp of something great. We are able to see production process not as mechanical methods, but rather as molecules put together in different patterns to create new materials. That is actually the essence of a circular economy.

About the author

Nils Torvalds (FI, RE) is shadow rapporteur for the Circular Economy’s Landfill of waste: resource efficiency report.

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