The Resource Challenge: The Transition to a Circular Economy

The concept of circular economy (‘CE’) emphasizes the necessity to move away from a linear economy based on a ‘take, make and dispose’ mode of production and consumption. In a circular economy, the aim is to close the loops, and any materials taken from nature should be used not only efficiently but also for as long as possible. In this approach, waste is a resource, although we may not yet be aware of all its uses.2, 3 Thus, waste management and initiatives for resource recovery are important drivers in the circular economy. For the European Union (EU) alone, net resource spending can be reduced by €600 billion a year, creating jobs and, not least, providing substantial environmental benefits.4 The CE is based on general industrial ecology and the ‘cradle to cradle’ concept, which take into account all steps in the waste management process.5, 6 The CE also highlights the importance of designing products fur durability and reuse while creating new business models.  Among the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal 12 concerns sustainable consumption and production, emphasizing the necessity for an improved resource management.7

The CE can be implemented on a macro, meso and micro-level.8 On a macro level, this means a transition of the whole society towards a circular economy. On a meso-level, this considers the interaction between sectors, industries and companies. On a micro level, individual products and processes are targeted.

The goal of the project presented in this paper was to increase the meso-level interactions between public sectors, industries and companies and to use the waste generated in one process as a resource in another. Such a transition must include several parts of society: the public sector, business and civil society, especially universities and other scientific institutions. This type of collaboration has been called the ‘quadruple helix’ and is recognized as a new approach to knowledge creation and innovative solutions where all partners are included in the process.9, 10 During a two-year period, our project opened up for a dialogue among a diversity of participants to achieve this and identify challenges and solutions related to waste management.

A Regional Approach to the Circular Economy

The current Swedish waste management system is largely based on the incineration of waste. About 99 percent (!) of household mixed waste (the ‘garbage bag’) ends up incinerated, with energy recovery through heat as the final treatment. The general principle in the EU and globally is to follow a waste hierarchy, according to which the preferred solution is to prevent waste, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery (including incineration for the production of heat) and, lastly, the disposal of waste.11 Similar approaches also exist in Asia12 and the US.13 Sweden has been highly successful at transitioning from disposal to recovery, but must go further with a view to increasing recycling, reuse and reduction of waste. This is also in line with the move towards a circular economy.

Source: authors
Plastic waste collected for sorting

To tackle the waste management challenge, a two-year project was initiated. The core project team included partners from Linnaeus University in Sweden, Sustainable Sweden Southeast and Statistics Sweden. Sustainable Sweden Southeast is a business network in Southeast Sweden aimed at promoting environmentally driven business as well as exports of energy and environmental technology. It coordinates national and international business projects in the field of energy and environmental technology. Statistics Sweden is the country’s statistical agency, producing statistics in all fields, including waste. Linnaeus University is located in the south-east of Sweden, in Småland, the region where the project was carried out.

During the project, we held four workshops with a total of 80 participants. Moreover, we visited about 20 companies with which we discussed waste management in detail and another 20 companies in which waste was addressed more generically. The overall aim of the project was to increase the use of society’s waste products by sharing information between businesses and technology experts (including academics) as well as creating opportunities for ‘matchmaking’, in particular through industrial symbiosis between companies that may use each other’s waste as a resource.

A statistical analysis showing how waste was generated and treated was complemented by an  action research strategy involving participants in the research process.14, 15 Such an eclectic research strategy has the advantage of gaining direct input on, and validation of, the results of the research from the stakeholders we wanted to reach.

Waste Treatment at a Glance

In line with our approach, the quantitative results could be discussed and tested in cooperation with the public sector, companies and industries. This strategy allowed us to find solutions to waste-related challenges and identify ways towards an increased recycling of waste.16 The quantitative results are presented below, followed by the qualitative findings, including a model for improved waste management.

We used data originally collected for the national waste statistics, according to the standardized format of the EU Waste Statistics Regulation (WStatR). This data was collected according to the guidelines from Eurostat (2150/2002/EC) and the Swedish methods are presented in a quality report.17 Data can be retrieved by waste type and treatment method for specific regions.

In Småland in 2012, about 40 percent of all generated waste was mixed. As shown in Figure 1, the types were: household waste, demolition and construction waste, sorting residues and undifferentiated materials. A first prerequisite for effective recycling is to have waste separated, not mixed. Indeed, to separate it afterwards is complicated and expensive, as it is difficult to retrieve homogeneous materials.

As a result, about 42 percent of waste goes for incineration (with energy recovery), which is the most common way of treating waste in Småland. This is followed by other approaches including construction and coverage of landfills (27 percent), materials recycling (20 percent), disposal in landfills (6 percent) and, finally, anaerobic digestion and composting (5 percent). Construction and coverage of landfills is included in the recovery step according to the EU Waste Statistics Regulation (2150/2002/EC).

In our analysis, we have excluded hazardous waste and some types of non-hazardous waste, such as soils, sludge, etc., which are normally considered waste in official statistics. Hazardous waste was excluded to avoid promotion of reusing of unwanted substances and the others were considered to be less important for this study.

Figure 1. Generated waste by waste categories (non-hazardous) in Småland, Sweden, in 2012 (kg/person). Blue bars refer to unsorted (mixed) waste and yellow bars refer to sorted waste.

Six Steps to Improve Recycling

Throughout the project, we identified six crucial factors as building blocks for future initiatives aimed at improving waste management. Rather than conventional approaches like waste hierarchy, which are aimed at large scale societal change, we believe our LNES model provides a tool for improving waste management in industries and companies, but also for those working in the public sector. 18 Although the LNES pyramid illustrates the move from an organizational level to a physical level, we want to emphasize that the steps can be approached in any order depending on the context (Figure 2).

Figure 2: LNES model for improving waste management in companies and industries.

Legislate: The Definition of Waste Must Be Rigid

First of all, waste management is more likely to improve when there is a clear legal system in place. If a company is to receive waste from another company, it must have a permit to treat waste. However, not all residues are defined as waste and legal criteria are essential for market systems to work properly. At present, the EU Regulation 2008/98/EC establishes whether a residual product can be classified as waste or not, but there is a degree of uncertainty, thus leading to sub-optimal outcomes.19 An illustrative example is provided by a furniture company in Småland, which donated residual pieces of wood and textiles to schools. Not only did schools use these materials for sewing and woodwork, but cooperation with business generated a sense of pride and cohesion in the area. However, it was unclear to the schools if they were taking care of waste or a residual product. Indeed, if classified as waste, the schools would require a special permit. This uncertainly results in companies and potential partners avoiding to work together, limiting cooperation and, above all, increasing the amount of untreated residual products and waste.

Basic as it may sound, companies are concerned about the lack of clarity around the meaning of waste. There are also other aspects of legislation to consider, such as the prohibition to landfill organic waste, which is the case in Sweden (SFS 2001:512). In the EU, there are proposals to introduce legislation aimed at reducing the landfilling of municipal waste and prohibiting that of sorted waste (COM (2011) 571). Taxation is also an aspect of legislation that influences the sorting of waste.

Lead: Commitment from the Management

Leadership and commitment play an important role in recycling. Further, employee involvement and incentives to come up with new ideas, methods and solutions were identified as critical success factors. Decisions on changes in waste management must often pass through the employees in charge of such matters at the company, and they must take on a leading role. It is important for employees to be committed and interested in such improvements. It is also important to have an external partner that could help the company’s management to get started on improvements in waste management. In larger companies and industries, it is even more important for those in leading positions to take the initiative, as the organizations may be too rigid for changes to occur on other levels.

Network: Collaborate and Spread the Word

Waste management is more often than not a process requiring not only technological advancements but also social innovation. Partnerships are therefore key, given that one’s waste could be someone else’s resource. For instance, during our project, one hotel realized that it could sort food waste instead of discarding it, by partnering with a food collection company. This improved their environmental efforts and saved money for the hotel. The waste collection company increased the production of biogas, which is produced from food waste.

Another large company using plastic in its assembly line used to send its residues for incineration. After connecting with a recycler of plastic, its waste is now being turned  into plastic pellets.

Educate: Building Knowledge on How Waste Can Be Sorted

It is important that all employees in a company know how to sort waste A new shopping mall involved in our project has held extensive training for everyone and provided a checklist on how to sort the waste. The shopping mall also has dedicated staff, who are tasked with collecting waste from the various shops. Each shop now has an area where different types of waste are collected by these employees.

The knowledge disseminated through this process was part of the systemic and collaborative approach to waste treatment.  At the workshops conducted during the project, participants also learned more about waste sorting, and they took this knowledge to their own organizations and homes. The project team helped to educate the participants by presenting statistical data.

Simplify: Make it Easier to Sort Waste

Sorted waste is often a prerequisite for recycling. In a factory with about 1,000 employees, bins for glass, metal, paper, plastic and one labelled “landfilling” were placed in several spots throughout the factory. Unsurprisingly, the bin labelled “landfilling” was the most commonly used by workers, because they did not know how to sort the waste properly. Needless to say, most waste disposed for landfill should have rather been placed in the bins for glass, metal and other recyclables. In order to nudge employees to be more effective at recycling, it was decided to move all generic waste bins to a location further away, so that workers needed to walk a greater distance if they wanted to throw waste away for landfill. This simple shift reduced the amount of landfill waste by 50 percent in one year. It also led to reduced costs for the company, since there is a tax on landfill waste in Sweden.

Space: Plan for Sufficient Space for Many Bins

During the project, a new shopping mall was compared with an older shopping district. In the new shopping mall, adequate space has been provided in the basement for various containers and bins for many fractions of waste. The mall was also staffed with a dedicated person who helped people sort the waste correctly. By contrast, the older shopping district struggled to find space for locating multiple containers, given that waste disposal had not been a primary concern at the time the district was built. Moreover, shops were located in different buildings, with different owners. Every shop therefore had to solve the waste situation on its own, one by one. For this reason, they prioritized mixed waste and sorted out maybe one or two more fractions, resulting in most waste ending up in mixed bins.

Waste containers displayed in a row to allow for easy sorting
Waste containers displayed in a row to allow for easy sorting

Through discussions, one possible solution was to move all mixed waste to a common larger bin, placed further away, such as in a large bin underground (Underground Waste System, UWS). This solution is used in several newly built neighbourhoods. By moving the bin for mixed waste, space could instead be freed up for more separate fractions of waste in the shopping areas.

Partnership is Key to Success

To increase the recycling and reuse of waste as a resource, this mixed waste must be sorted, for example into plastic, metal and glass fractions. We found that one way to improve waste management is to align it as much as possible with the companies’ core business, so that it’s not seen as an add-on. We also found that presenting statistics on waste was not enough to achieve actual solutions: creating and improving opportunities for collaboration between companies was critical to exchange knowledge and disseminate new ideas.

As noted by Cortner20, environmental issues should consider human behaviour in its complexity and not simply be narrowed down to technical measurements.  The project was conducted in close collaboration with the private sector, which was a success factor. There was a demand for new knowledge and a need to support the motivation and collaboration among these partners. The project team was an external partner that could take the initiative and create meeting spaces. The continuation of this dialogue and these workshops will be important to reach higher recycling rates and succeed in the transition to a circular economy.

The project team and its core members were successful ‘boundary spanners’, meaning that they facilitated collaboration and networking activities that paved the way for waste management associations, companies, industries and public sector entities to meet, especially during the workshops and matchmaking activities. Both the capacity to cross social and sectoral boundaries 21,22 as well as the increased diversity in the team and stakeholders involved23, 24 are generally recognized as important enablers of collaboration in social innovation.

We hope that the six-point LNES model can serve as an inspiration for other regional initiatives that aim to improve waste management, but we also recognize that a functional recycling system is needed in the region where it is undertaken. Hence, the model is probably best applied where there is a waste management system in place that collects and recycles sorted waste of different types. Depending on regional circumstances, the model may set an example for others, and certain steps in the model are more viable focal points than others. The objectives of the project were to disseminate knowledge and conduct matchmaking, creating industrial symbiosis between companies in order to find ways in which waste could be used as a resource. The project process showed many different possibilities and ways to do this by looking at good examples, sharing knowledge during workshops and inspiring participants to come up with new ideas. The companies needed input and support to develop their own ideas, which was partly realized by the opportunity to network and make new contacts. We were surprised to see that relatively small behavioural changes would be the solution and could make such a major difference in improving recycling.


We want to thank the Kamprad Family Foundation, all participating industries and companies, Ann-Christine Bayard as a member of the project team, Annika Gerner for statistical work. We also want to thank the two reviewers for constructive comments.


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Details about waste data

EWC=European Waste Code. The following waste types were included in the analysis (name and code according to (2150/2002/EC), the version from 27th sept 2010:

EWC Description
01.2 Acid, alkaline or saline wastes
01.3 Used oils
01.4 Spent chemical catalysts
02 Chemical preparation wastes
03.1 Chemical deposits and residues
05 Health care and biological wastes
06 Metallic wasters
07.1 Glass wastes
07.2 Paper and cardboard wastes
07.3 Rubber wastes
07.4 Plastic wastes
07.5 Wood wastes
07.6 Textile wastes
08 (excl 08.1, 08.41) Discarded equipment (excluding discarded vehicles, batteries and accumulation wastes)
08.41 Batteries and accumulators wastes
09.1 Animal and mixed food wastes
09.2 Vegetal wastes
10.1 Household and similar wastes
10.2 Mixed and undifferentiated materials
10.3 Sorting residues
12.1 Mineral wastes from construction and demolition
12.2, 12.3, 12.5 Other mineral wastes
12.4 Combustion wastes
12.8, 13 Mineral wastes from waste treatment and stabilised wastes

Hazardous waste was not included at all. Some non-hazardous waste was not generated or treated in the area and is therefore not shown in Figure 1 (such as healthcare and biological wastes). The project excluded the following waste types from the analysis: 03.2 Industrial effluent sludges, 03.3 Sludges and liquid wastes from waste treatment, 09.3 Animal faeces, urine and manure, 11 Common sludges, 12.6 Soils and 12.7 Dredging spoils.

Some waste categories have been merged into one group and/or have been provided with another name than in WStatR (2150/2002/EC). This was done to enhance communication and make the article less technical.

These are: Chemical wastes = EWC 01.2-03.1, 08.41, Discarded equipment = EWC 08 (excl 08.1 and 08.41), Construction and demolition wastes = 12.1, Ashes and sludges = EWC 12.4, 12.8, 13


Louise Sörme

Louise Sörme works as a project leader and advisor at Statistics Sweden and has a Ph.D. in environmental science. Her work and research has long focused on material and substance flow analysis. More recently,...


Joacim Rosenlund

Joacim Rosenlund is senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Linnaeus University in Sweden and has a Ph.D. in environmental science. His research focuses on new and better ways to solve environmental challenges,...


Bo Bergbäck

Bo Bergbäck is professor in Environmental Chemistry at Linnaeus University, Sweden. His research area is material/substance flow analysis of both hazardous and valuable substances.

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