Blog|August 4, 2023

Practical circular economy actions call for case-specificity

Both the importance of case-specificity and business sector characteristics were emphasized when alternative ways of implementing circular economy principles were examined in the textile, battery, and food chain. Circular economy strategies, also known as the R-strategies, were used to set a frame of reference for the examination.

In circular economy (CE), the aim is to reduce the use of virgin materials, while creating value by utilizing existing products, components, and process side streams as efficiently as possible. Circular economy strategies, or R-strategies, offer a pragmatic approach for determining suitable circularity-based options for specific products and materials. The R-strategies are suitable for use by researchers, policymakers and authorities, companies, and consumers.


The R-strategies can be classified under three approaches: 1) smarter product use and manufacture (R0 Refuse, R1 Rethink, R2 Reduce), 2) life extension (R3 Reuse, R4 Repair, R5 Refurbish, R6 Remanufacture, R7 Re-purpose), and 3) efficient material use (R8 Recycle, R9 Recover). Often, the higher impact on circularity and overall sustainability is generally attained by adopting the strategies R0-R2. However, what is the most effective R-strategy depends on the case and therefore, the selection of concrete CE actions should be based on a holistic, case-specific, system wide approach. In addition, the combination of different actions is clearly the most effective in terms of realizing the circular economy. The CircDNet project examined the circular economy activities in three different value chains, i.e., the textile, battery, and food.


In the textile value chain, currently the most effective CE actions include the replacement of fast fashion with products of long-lived products (R3) and reduction of production and consumption volumes (R2). Textile manufacturers can invest in product durability, e.g. by using long-lasting fibers and introducing long-lasting designs. The service life of textiles is also affected by consumers’ desire to repair textiles or purchase repair services. Second-hand sales and rentals also increase the use of products, and thus, indirectly reduce demand. However, the extra transports and washings associated with sales and rentals cause additional environmental impacts. Accordingly, the environmental impact during the use of all textiles can be significantly reduced by reducing the washing and drying of textiles.


In the battery value chain, increased recycling of metals (R8) is crucial to meet the future need for batteries in various solutions including electric vehicles and energy storage. Thus, recycling technologies need to be further developed to meet the recycling targets. Currently, there is commercial activity in the material recycling of lithium batteries. Along with the development of recycling technologies for metal batteries, alternatives to replace metals are being investigated. In terms of traffic, particularly new ways of moving are also needed. Current public transport is not agile enough to replace private cars, and therefore, new innovative concepts are needed alongside to fulfil societal transportation needs, or even to reduce these needs altogether (R1).


In the agri-food value chain, avoiding food loss and food waste (R0) is clearly a low hanging fruit since even one third of all food is estimated to be wasted. Households play a crucial role in the reduction of food waste. Logistical costs arising from the high water content is the most important barrier to the utilization of side streams generated in the agri-food system. In Finland, no significant breakthrough is yet to appear despite of extensive allocation of resources on nutrient cycling during the past several years. The nutrients of animal manure remain in areas of high animal production, while industrially produced, and often imported, mineral fertilizers are used in areas dominated by crop cultivation. As a solution to the situation, the treatment of manure in biogas plants (R9) has been sought, where, in addition to energy, highly refined, recycled fertilizer products that replace mineral fertilizers would be produced. A model of economic compensation targeted to biogas plants that adopt this operating model is under preparation.

Above some observations from the CircDNet project. Read more about the systematic review of all R strategies for each selected value chain in the recent research report:

Winquist, E., Horn, S., Tuovila, H., Lavikko, S., Sorvari, J., Joutsjoki, V., Karhu, M., Slotte, P., Kautto, P., Kivikytö-Reponen, P., Ilvesniemi, H. 2023. R-strategies in circular economy : Textile, battery, and agri-food value chains. Natural Resources and Bioeconomy Studies 57/2023. Natural Resources Institute Finland. Helsinki.

Erika Winquist, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke)

Susanna Horn, Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)

Jaana Sorvari, Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)