Norway falls behind its ambition of being a circular pioneer

Authors: Jostein Brobakk and Pia Otte

A three-year-old Norwegian report shows that Norway is worse at reusing and recycling bioresources than countries we tend to compare ourselves with. A Norwegian-Baltic research collaboration outlines possible solutions to improve this status.

The ambition of the government is that Norwegian should become a circular economy pioneer. A 2020 report from the think-tank Circular Norway shows that we are a long way off: only 2.4 percent of material consumption in Norway is recycled back into the economy. This is well below the global
average of nine percent.

In the government’s declaration, the Hurdal platform, there is a separate paragraph on circularity where it is outlined that more circular thinking is important both in terms of reducing climate emissions and to increase sustainability in the economy. Less resources than today should go to waste and better labeling of sustainably produced consumer goods should be facilitated. Further, consumers ought to get better information about the environmental footprint and the material use of various products. In addition, the government wants to provide policies that can contribute to an increased lifespan for products, increased trade based on recycled resources, to present a reuse strategy for public enterprises, and to ensure that the state enters into agreements with business to increase the reuse of materials. These are good ambitions, but more action and concrete results are needed. We believe it is time for organizations and start-ups that want to contribute with circular economy products and services to get more support from the public sector, and that consumers get more circular and sustainable goods and services to choose from.

The research project CIRCLE is a collaboration between Ruralis and research partners in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In CIRCLE we study circular start-up, enterprises, and business models and what is needed to increase circularity in the economy. We have mapped 150 different initiatives, carried out 12 in-depth case studies and conducted interviews with consumers, decision-makers and business and organization representatives. The project focuses on bio-based resources in agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture. These are industries with great potential for increased circularity due to vast amounts of bioresources currently not recycled or reused but end up as waste. A common feature of the businesses we have studied is that they have developed solutions that can contribute to increased circularity and value creation through recycling or reuse.

So far, two interesting findings can be mentioned. First, many businesses struggle to get their products onto the market, due to a lack of public facilitation or the existence of regulatory obstacles. Second, many consumers state they are willing to change their consumption in a more circular direction but struggle to find circular alternatives. What is missing in proposed policies are measures that can improve the market situation for start-ups, and measures that give consumers more options to choose from and make it easier to choose the right one.

The transition from a start-up to a commercially sustainable business is challenging, and many companies need help along the way. Public actors, such as state enterprises and municipalities, are large market actors that purchase large volumes of goods and services annually. These actors could use their influence to create new markets for circular businesses and demand circular products to a larger extent, for instance through public procurement. Further, in the CIRCLE consumer studies reduced VAT for thrift stores and businesses that repair kitchen and household appliances is suggested as measures with large potentials. The same is more emphasis on reuse of building materials such as lumber and wood, windows, roof tiles, and so forth.

An example of a circular initiative that struggled with lack of coherence in public regulations is Jordpro in Trondheim, Norway. Jordpro, which had to shut down in 2023, developed technologies that recycled nutrients through transformation of food scraps, manure and garden waste to soil additives and organic fertilizers. The Jordpro products could have replaced peat-based soil products with a relatively large carbon footprint. However, the company struggled to get its products out to customers, partly because the politicians have not yet implemented the Environment Agency’s proposal to ban the extraction of peat from bogs.

Better facilitation from the public sector and more targeted measures are important, and something that the businesses we have studied in CIRCLE say is lacking. Our studies show that there are many initiatives and start-up companies that want to contribute to increased circularity. The public sector and decision makers should make greater use of the circular initiatives’ willingness to implement good ideas and take on risk.

Consumers are also ready to make so-called right choices, but circular goods and services are currently price competitive, and somewhat lacking in the market. Although the public sector may have to increase its efforts, facilitating increased circularity does not have to be expensive. With many small measures working in the same direction the low degree of circularity in the economy can be increased considerably – so that Norway becomes a circular pioneer in line with the stated ambitions from the government.