What contribution can a circular economy make to solving pressing environmental challenges? An interview with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Vera Susanne Rotter, Head of the Recycling Management and Recycling Technology Department at the Technical University (TU) Berlin and member of the German Federal Government's Advisory Council on the Environment.
IFAT | Prof. Rotter, how do you define circular economy?
Rotter | By circular economy I mean an economy that, like nature, operates with limited raw materials. This is not to be confused with a perpetuum mobile. Because the more substances we put into the cycle, the more energy is needed. In practice, we are still a long way from a circular economy.
IFAT | What are the most pressing environmental challenges of our time?
Rotter | In politics and the media, climate protection is currently the top priority. And rightly so. Apart from that, however, our overall ecological footprint is too high. The cycle of matter in agriculture, for example, leads to global environmental pollution that requires local solutions. Unlike before, these problems can no longer be solved with selectively used environmental technologies. Rather, we require system solutions that are embedded in the economy. Practicing climate protection at the expense of biodiversity would not be effective.
IFAT | What contribution can the circular economy make here?
Rotter | Three areas are emerging, the first being food production. The aim here is to significantly reduce waste, recycle nutrients and improve soil quality. In recycling, a circular economy can help to replace primary raw materials with environmentally friendly secondary raw materials. And we need consistent ecodesign and higher recycling rates for the climate protection technologies, which are currently very raw material intensive.
IFAT | Which material flows are currently of particular importance for a circular economy?
Rotter | The standardization of plastics and the elimination of harmful additives would help to improve the recyclability of these substances. At the same time, plastics should be used in products as separable as possible. In the long term, however, plastics production must be based on alternative raw materials such as synthetic crude oil. This makes the raw material more expensive and recycling more lucrative.
IFAT | What about the building sector?
Rotter | This field also offers great potential for system solutions. In the future, disposal would no longer have to be so much about classic rubble, but about functional construction units such as building walls that can be reused. In any case, compared to a later, complex sorting process, the use of dismantlable parts should preferably be a part of building planning.
IFAT | What is today’s status quo of circular economy?
Rotter | In terms of products, there is a gap between ambition and reality. Product designers often pay more attention to functionality than to recyclability. And waste management is often still too disconnected from production. However, there is a lot happening in the development of materials for packaging. But unfortunately, the many innovations are hardly coordinated. One example: every supermarket chain has its own solution.
IFAT | What is happening in the recycling industry in particular?
Rotter | Recycling companies are increasingly using sensor-based systems for detection and sorting. And self-learning systems are being developed that adapt to the respective material flows. Although much is being done in research and development, there is a lack of reliable framework conditions for investing in new technologies.
IFAT | What technologies will shape the circular economy in the future?
Rotter | An important field is the digital transfer and processing of information. Hardware technologies are already well developed here. In production, it is necessary to obtain information on the products’ material composition as well as on their reusability, repair and recyclability—namely over their entire life cycle.