The circular economy is a holistic framework for a sustainable economy. The goal is to create closed-loop material cycles in which, ideally, smaller quantities of material would circulate for longer periods. This can help to avoid waste and make important contributions to resource conservation and climate protection. It is important for this to bring about changes in economic systems and business models, too. Consequently, a circular economy requires a comprehensive transformation of the economy and society.
Along with 130 other experts, you are a member of the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland, which has published a Circular Economy Roadmap for Germany, with recommendations for policy enablers, economic actors and researchers. What steps are needed to create a circular economy in Germany?
It’s about creating suitable conditions to facilitate and promote a circular economy. One starting point is to create standards for the classification of used, refurbished and recycled products. It is also essential to have transparency regarding the origin, composition and environmental impact of used materials and products. From a political and legal standpoint, incentives and obligations are needed for the involved actors and a coherent product policy to ensure that products retain their value. This includes establishing longer guarantees for the useful life of products, for example, but also linking recycling quotas to requirements for high-quality, value-preserving recycling.
What proposals has the initiative put forward for economic incentives?
The regulatory and economic conditions must make the circular economy worthwhile for the actors. Key elements are the elimination of environmentally damaging subsidies and higher pricing of waste and emissions. The additional revenues can be used to fund pilot projects on innovative business models, for example, or create the necessary infrastructure for the reuse, extended use and recycling of materials. In many areas, R&D work is also needed to make the circular economy a reality. Increased efforts in education and knowledge transfer will be required for the implementation. It is especially important for us as private individuals to boost demand for sustainable and circular products and services. This long list of priorities underscores the scale and complexity of the issue.
As the holder of the Professorship for Circular Economy at the TUM Campus Straubing for Biotechnology and Sustainability, you have been studying this societal transformation process for some time now. What motivates you to do research on this topic?
First, I want my work to make a difference in terms of living safely and sustainably and in harmony with the possibilities of our Earth so that we do not jeopardize the future of later generations. Second, I am fascinated by the subject itself, with its complexity, the interdisciplinary dimension and the relevance to what is happening here and now. The necessity and urgency of the circular economy has again been highlighted by the recent ruling on climate change by the German Constitutional Court. The circular economy also plays a central role in the European Green Deal.
What circular economy topics are being studied at your professorship?
We look at the circular economy from a systemic standpoint and examine technologies and products, the local and regional context and industrial sectors. We analyze these systems, develop concepts for a circular economy and methods for evaluating them from a sustainability standpoint. Concretely, we explore such topics as circular flows of plastics, the implementation of the circular economy in cities, and e-waste. With regard to plastics, we’re interested in a combination of circular economy and bioeconomy approaches. We want to take an integrated view of the closed loop and the substitution of fossil raw material sources through bio-based raw materials. With regard to e-waste, large quantities are ending up in Global South countries, especially in west Africa. We are developing sustainable management solutions using digital technologies and entrepreneurial approaches. In this area we are cooperating with Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), a TUM partner university in Ghana.
Your professorship is working with the Chair of Materials Handling, Material Flow, Logistics to coordinate the CirculaTUM research alliance for the circular economy. What are the goals of CirculaTUM?
The idea behind CirculaTUM is that we at TUM have so many excellent researchers who can address the issues and tasks related to the development of the circular economy and its implementation. As a platform for discussing ideas and taking action, we want to pool competencies in order to take an active role in the transformation towards a circular economy. It’s all about starting joint research initiatives, positioning the circular economy throughout our teaching programs and having an impact on the economy and society. We are pursuing these objectives in work groups on industrial value chains, the built environment and on natural cycles and the bioeconomy. We’re delighted that more than 20 professors from various schools and locations are already on board.
acatech/Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland/SYSTEMIQ (Hrsg.): Circular Economy Roadmap für Deutschland. München/London 2021