Provincial Governor Wilfried Haslauer demonstrates circular economy using a wooden chair, Photo: Innovation Salzburg/Benedikt Schemmer

21. March 2023

The economy must align with nature

How to use resources efficiently, reuse them, or replace them with natural materials is what circular economy and bioeconomy are concerned with. Experts discussed what it takes to transition to a green economy during a panel at the salz21 innovation festival.

Do you remember the wooden chairs in your school? Each and every one of us has sat on such a chair, without thinking about where it comes from or what happens to it when it reaches the end of its life. Ideally, it comes from wood from an Austrian forest, is debarked and debranched in a sawmill, and its valuable raw materials are processed elsewhere. A carpentry workshop shapes the wood into a chair. After hundreds of children have sat on the chair, the wood is further processed, for example, into another piece of furniture. Only when the wood can no longer be used is it burned and gives us warmth.

THAT is circular economy. Each component of a natural raw material is used, then reprocessed or recycled until it reaches the end of its life cycle. However, our current economic system looks different. We consume more resources than can grow back. We produce products and when we no longer need them, we throw them away and buy something new. This has immense effects on CO2 emissions and makes us dependent on finite resources. Our economy is decoupled from nature.

Therefore, the circular economy is an important part of the European Green Deal. At the panel “Gamechanger Circular Economy and Bioeconomy” on Thursday, March 16, 2023, at the salz21 innovation festival, experts and users from the economy spoke about how we can move from our current linear economy to a circular one. The panel was organized by Innovation Salzburg.

From concrete to packaging

The construction industry, for example, shows how materials can be reused or used differently. Big changes are coming to the construction industry, as it is responsible for 30 to 40 percent of emissions. But there is another way: Salzburg Wohnbau is currently building a building that is 80 percent constructed from reused materials. This works by recycling concrete from old buildings or reusing wood.

In addition to the circular economy, bioeconomy is also a topic that many companies are dealing with. Bioeconomy means replacing artificial materials with natural ones. This is particularly challenging for food packaging. It is not only about reducing plastic packaging, but actually replacing it. In addition, strict hygiene regulations must be followed in the food sector. Meanwhile, this is best achieved with PET, which is why the food industry is highly dependent on it. Replacing PET is one of its biggest challenges.

Old machines for new materials

But it is not only in terms of hygiene regulations that companies are facing unforeseen obstacles, but also in the production process itself. Existing production plants in the food sector are designed for “old” materials. New raw materials have different requirements – they are, for example, more heat-sensitive and stretchier – and are therefore not compatible with the old machines. Investments in new equipment are expensive. And usually, companies also need to involve their suppliers in the transformation to a different material. Therefore, a circular economy and bioeconomy only work across the entire supply chain. If successful, a critical mass can also be reached. Lone fighters find it difficult to assert themselves in the market. However, when many companies use new materials, the green transformation accelerates.

Tobias Stern, Executive Director of the Institute of Environmental Systems Science at the University of Graz and Bioeconomy Austria network partner, sees collaboration as the key to success: “Bioeconomy can be a real game-changer in terms of green growth and emission reduction. This requires networks like Bioeconomy Austria, which bring all actors in the value chain to the table.”

The green transformation must also be economically viable. The Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) also notes that the conversion involves high costs. The demand for funding is increasing steadily. The FFG provides around 60 million euros annually for research projects on the topic. In addition to targeted funding, better legal framework conditions are also needed on how companies can and may use residual and old materials. For example, in construction, only 38 percent concrete recycling may be used. However, the technology already enables one hundred percent.

Less is more

When shifting from a linear to a circular economy, we must also consider the finite nature of natural resources. Wood is a popular raw material that benefits our forest-rich Austria. However, 88 percent of the wood growth is already used. The remaining stocks are in small private forests and are therefore difficult to develop. The pressure on our forests is high. Therefore, it is not only a matter of replacing raw materials but also of dealing with resources very carefully and sparingly.

Technologies alone will not solve the problem. We need an economy that is oriented towards nature. The central building block of a functioning circular economy and bioeconomy is society, which bears the costs. Awareness of the value of finite resources must increase. This includes, for example, that people know what and how they can best recycle. We need to learn to use resources better so that they do not run out. Karin Huber-Heim, Executive Director of the Circular Economy Forum Austria, emphasizes the importance of the careful use of valuable resources and awareness of sustainable consumption: “It is crucial that we all start together now.”

The panel was organized by Innovation Salzburg, Bioeconomy Austria, and the Salzburg Science and Research Council. Bioeconomy Austria is the gateway to the bioeconomy in Austria. The growing network is open to all interested organizations:

Participants in the discussion were:

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