Column: Setting the course for the circular economy? 

Mari Pantsar SitraIt took the Earth millions of years to transform living organisms from another age into fossil materials. It only takes a moment for us humans to use and waste these raw materials. Among other things, we use them to make textiles or plastic products, which often end up being incinerated after use, dumped in landfill, or polluting the environment.

This equation does not work. We have to move from a culture of disposables that taxes the environment, to a circular economy. The materials taken into use in the circular economy stay in circulation and are used again and again. The value of these materials and products is retained and can even grow in new purposes of use. A good example of this are designer rucksacks made from packaging materials.

Many of us think that conserving natural resources or reducing the burden on the environment would be good enough reasons to move towards the circular economy, given that nowadays we need 1.5 times the Earth's planetary resources to produce the amount of natural resources that humankind currently uses. But the circular economy is a lot more besides. It also generates economic activity and growth, and aims to replace fossil and non-renewable natural resources with renewable resources.

In principle, wood-based materials could replace nearly all non-renewable raw materials in the future, were there enough wood. Textiles, plastic products, buildings and vehicles could already be made from wood-based materials. Given that there is, nevertheless, a limited quantity of forests and wood, and that they have many useful purposes, it would also be worthwhile making products with as high added value as possible for the raw materials taken into use. This would benefit both the environment and the economy.

This leads us to the forest industry. When I talk about the success stories of the Finnish circular economy at international events, I always mention our forest industry as an example, since it has been putting some of the principles of the circular economy into practice for a long time now. The amount of waste it generates has been driven to a minimum, and side streams are used for the production of new products and fuels. In the future, the forest industry's role as a driver of the circular economy will only grow, because the world will have to abandon – possibly sooner than expected – the use of fossil-based raw materials due to the rapid advancement of climate change.

The need for a shift towards the circular economy is already urgent. This is why I am so proud to hear about the fine new products that our forest industry is already producing or developing. At least I'm going to use wood-based textiles once they capture the market. Hopefully, this will happen very soon.

Mari Pantsar
Director, Carbon-Neutral Circular Economy
The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra

Mari Pantsar has about 20 years' experience of managerial tasks in the development of cleantech and circular economy business. She has a doctorate in philosophy and holds the title of docent at the University of Helsinki and at Lappeenranta University of Technology.

Photo: Miikka Pirinen