How to enable circular economy?

On 5 September CIRLCE organised an online discussion “Rethinking circularity in bioeconomy:  challenges, good practices and future perspectives”. This online event aimed to provide insight into good circular practices in bioeconomy and deepen our understanding of the challenges and opportunities underlying the development of circular bioeconomy. The discussion collected evidence from real-life experiences and facilitated an interdisciplinary discussion on circularity in and across agriculture, forestry and aquaculture. The discussion brought together six panellists – researchers involved in the exploration of various aspects of circular bioeconomy (CBE) : Diana Mincyte (City University of New York-City Tech, USA; Vilnius University, Lithuania), Pia Piroschka Otte (RURALIS,  Norway), Joanna Storie (Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonia), Lilian Pungas (Junior Research Group “Mentalities in Flux” (flumen), Germany), Rando Värnik (Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonia), Talis Tisenkopfs (Baltic Studies Centre, Latvia).

Both transversal and specific topics emerged in the discussants’ interventions that mark existing challenges and potential avenues for future development of CBE.

Since a while circular economy is on the policy and scientific agendas and more and more businesses are considering and implementing circular practices. However, understanding of CBE still seems quite vague among a range of stakeholders. Numerous definitions of circular economy have been provided, including by such reference organisations as the European Commission, OECD, the MacArthur Foundation and other, but the concept still lacks clear scientific and practical understanding. Pia Otte illustrated that, for instance, 51% of Norwegian consumers are not familiar with the term ‘circular economy’.  Other related or overlapping concepts – bioeconomy, bio-based economy, green economy – add to the confusion. While understanding of the circularity per se is not sufficient to switch towards circular business and consumption models, it is helpful to arrive at better-informed choices and strategic decisions. It can also help prevent from ‘greenwashing’ when conventional solutions with attached ‘green’ labels are promoted as circular ones. It can add visibility and raise the needed support to less visible circular practices, for instance at urban household plots as presented by Lilian Pungas, to increase their durability and impacts.

Better understanding of circularity links also to the questions of circularity for whom and for what, how CBE can help attain broader societal goals, and how the transition towards it can be better steered and governed. Circular solutions are often presented from a technical and technological perspective with an emphasis on resource saving. Less attention is given to its social aspects and benefits. Diana Mincyte underlined the importance of scaling-down circular economy and reaching out to households and individual level, and to make circularity acceptable by the general public: “Targeted actions are needed to shape attitudes and build infrastructures that enable households to participate in circular systems not only as end-users but also as participants.”

In the meantime, a broad range of stakeholders, sectors, policies and various governance levels should be involved in the transition process. Pia Otte pointed out that new integrated approaches of governance should be promoted that moves away from silos thinking. Multi-actor governance appears as a promising way forward as it brings together and involve a variety of actors including public, private or hybrid actors in new partnerships. Various emerging collaborations were highlighted by Talis Tisenkopfs, for instance, B2B, B2Municipalities, B2Research, territorial collaborations. However, multi-actor approach is also challenging because of differences in understandings, interests, values, power positions of the different actors that may hamper their mobilisation around a common goal. Here, formal governance instruments, such as rules, regulations, targeted support programs can help to establish a shared basis for joint action between multiple stakeholders. But actors’ mutual trust, social norms and relationships are as crucial for the development of collaborative networks. Strengthening participatory approach can enable trust and ownership of CE initiatives.

For a true transition, as Rando Värnik underlined, a shift in values and mindsets that guide our production and consumption models is needed. This echoes with Joanna Storie’s statement that development should not be approached anymore only from an economic perspective, and it is urgent to shift from resources-extracting consumerism to responsible circular practices. Zooming out to landscape-scale thinking broadens perspective and helps to perceive green and blue infrastructures as a source both for economic progress and social wellbeing. To support this shift in mindsets, availability of scientific and practical knowledge is central: more targeted efforts are needed to generate the necessary knowledge and to facilitate its access and transfer across disciplinary and sectoral borders.