Circular innovations need updated regulations to develop

Shifting to the circular economy requires innovation through corporate research and development. But according to a new report, some current laws and regulations negatively impact companies’ investments in circular solutions.

30 Oct 2023

A recent report from the world’s largest business organisation – in cooperation with a leading association for Sweden’s commercial sector – highlights how outdated waste transport regulations hinder the development of circular innovations. And Ragn-Sells contributed to that report.

Presented at a side session of the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki on June 1, Circular material flows for research and innovation is officially co-authored by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and Svenskt Näringsliv (the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise).

Pär Larshans, Director of Sustainability at Ragn-Sells, co-chairs the ICC working group that led the report’s creation and was at the conference to help present it in person. Although, he stresses that the paper is not just about Ragn-Sells and is also part of a larger effort to raise awareness of the obstacles sustainable and circular businesses face around the world. 

– This is the first report of several that the working group is producing, says Larshans. We decide to focus on the gaps and challenges of doing research and innovation when it comes to circular material flows.

Pär Larshans, Ragn-Sells
Pär Larshans, Director of Sustainability at Ragn-Sells, co-chairs the ICC working group that led the report’s creation.

Transporting waste across borders is key

The 12-page report, which the authors describe as a “policy brief” and a “thought starter,” asserts that transporting waste across international borders is vital for developing and exploring circular solutions on a scale large enough to be impactful. Yet current regulations – such as limiting any waste transported across borders for research purposes to 25 kg (even within the EU) – prevent organisations from amassing enough material necessary for significant lab tests or pilot plants.

According to Florence Binta Diao-Gueye, ICC’s Lead for Trade & Customs, such reports are essential to how the international organisation represents its more than 45 million member companies from all sectors in 170+ countries.

– We bring the voice of business to policymakers as they design and draft regulations, and also on emerging topics that they're unsure about, she explains.

And the circular economy is one emerging topic that desperately needs voices from the business world speaking on its behalf. An area mostly spearheaded and developed by those in the private sector, it often lacks adequate understanding and support from those in the public sector.

– You have companies doing absolutely incredible things, and they can't put them to use because older regulations are still in place, says Diao-Gueye. Those regulations were put there for a reason, but we have to find a way to make them work for a circular economy.

Ragn-Sells’ own pilot project affected

The report illustrates ways such regulations create hurdles with several real-world examples, including one featuring Ragn-Sells.

In 2018, the group's subsidiary company EasyMining needed to ship one ton of sewage sludge ash from a partner based outside the Danish city of Copenhagen to a pilot facility in the Swedish city of Helsingborg, where it was developing its process to recover phosphorus from incinerated sewage sludge. But waste transport laws held the shipment up for over half a year.

 – The whole research was delayed by almost eight months due to the fact that we couldn't transport the ashes across the border between Denmark and Sweden, recalls Larshans. We could literally see the ashes from the other side, from Sweden, but we couldn't transport them legally. 

Such incidents are why the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise identified updating waste regulations – including simplifying transport for circular usage – as a key enabler to create favourable market conditions for the circular economy. Marcus Wangel, Environmental Policy Expert at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, says the organisation co-authored the report with the ICC because of those findings as well as the broader intentions that underlie circularity in general.

 – If we are to achieve large-scale circular resource flows that have a real effect on reducing global emissions from resource consumption, we need to aim for regulations at the highest possible level, Wangel explains.

The shift from “waste” to “resources”

Changes are on the way. The EU, for example, is considering revising its waste shipment rules to a proposed increase of up to 150 kg. But more needs to be done.

The report calls for general policy updates, like allowing continuous input from the private sector and doing more to encourage circular innovations. It also describes a broader, underlying change necessary for any and all reforms: a new mindset that doesn't recognise the traditional idea of "waste" and appreciates the logistics behind sustainable practices.

Such an outlook would allow for material usage based on quality and not origin (as opposed to today’s criteria) but also enable the strategic material banking of any quality materials, storing them to use in the future. As Larshans explains, the current concept of “waste” defines something as unusable, which is impossible in the circular economy.  

In a world that values the importance of circular material flows, there’s no waste, just resources"
- Pär Larshans

Discover the full insights of the ICC's report. Download and read Circular material flows for research and innovation for yourself.