Industrialised nations with a strong manufacturing sector that relies heavily on exports need to have access to a reliable source of raw materials. If they don’t, then their employees’ jobs will be put at risk as indeed will prosperity levels across the whole of the country. It is, however, no longer possible to assume that there will be a reliable supply of raw materials in the future. As is the case elsewhere, Germany is being forced to find new and innovative ways to get hold of the resources it needs. One solution here is to head towards a truly circular economy – to break the link between economic growth and the consumption of natural resources. The raw materials that have already been removed from nature must be constantly circulated so that they can be re-used again and again and again.
Both the State Ministry for Economic Affairs responsible for North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and the Emscher-Lippe regional authorities, therefore, each commissioned studies to be carried out to examine the possibility of creating a circular economy in their region – i.e. to look into the potential of fully recycling all available raw materials and breaking away from the traditional linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model. The reasons for this are clear: as global problems, such as climate change, dwindling supplies of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems, continue to intensify so, too, is there a growing awareness for the need to curb global warming, protect the environment and conserve our planet’s natural resources by harmonising production and consumer behaviour.
Besides carrying out extensive desk research work, the study authors also held a large number of interviews with a variety of companies to identify the opportunities that were already available as well as to pinpoint the limits and risks.
A circular economy should, above all, lead to more innovations and economic growth at industrial and business locations
REMONDIS was one of the companies selected by both studies to act as an example of best practice. The principle of a circular economy has been at the core of the company’s philosophy since the very beginning. Norbert Rethmann, the founder of the company, made sure that his guiding principle, “Recycling rather than disposal”, was written into the company guidelines back in 1978. Since then, the ultimate goal of the whole of the Group has been to close an ever growing number of product life cycles. Since this family-run business was founded, therefore, its operations have focused entirely on creating a circular economy.
of recyclables are recovered by the company every year so that they can be re-used
It is even possible to measure the amount of natural resources it saves: 30 million tonnes of recyclables are recovered by the company every year so that they can be re-used. One major reason for this success is the new recycling systems that the company has developed itself – systems that are being operated in state-of-the-art recycling facilities and reflect the principles of the circular economy. Both studies show that innovation is vital for the creation of a circular economy as the range of materials able to be recovered and re-used can only be increased if innovative recycling processes are developed and implemented.
What’s more, the studies also confirm the limits of the circular economy, at least in today’s society. Recycled raw materials must unite environmental protection, competitiveness and efficiency. They must be accepted by the market and by final consumers and have the same properties and high quality as primary raw materials. A great challenge, therefore, for recycling businesses such as REMONDIS when they set about developing their own products. With this in mind, REMONDIS has been calling for it to be made obligatory for manufacturers to design their products so that they can be easily recycled. It is often the case that it is simply impossible to recover materials for re-use because the individual substances built into the current product designs effectively disappear in the many tiny elements and composite materials. “You don’t need to be a recycling expert to know that it is practically impossible to separate the individual materials from one another,” commented Herwart Wilms, a managing director at REMONDIS. The company is doing everything in its power to cooperate with industrial businesses by running waste management systems on their behalf and acting as an adviser for product designers. This situation, however, also highlights the need for ambitious rules and regulations that deal with the recovery of raw materials. If the most is to be made of the opportunities available to safeguard our raw materials and curb global warming, then parliament needs to pass clear-cut and unambiguous legislation. A further obstacle exposed by the studies.
Another important factor for creating a truly circular economy (quite apart from the rules and regulations) is to make society more aware of the need to systematically separate their waste. Every company and every person can help increase the volumes of recyclables collected – and the impact would be immediate.
A further 8 million tonnes of recyclable materials could be saved if Germans separated them rather than throwing them into their residual waste bin. This volume alone would cut carbon emissions by 1.6 million tonnes a year. Well aware of this situation, REMONDIS has developed its “RECYCLING PROFESSIONALS” initiative that offers educational theatre shows and teaching material. Its goal here is to use a variety of fun activities to teach children at an early age about the scarcity of raw materials and the importance of collecting recyclables and separating waste.
Besides leading to more innovations and economic growth, the studies confirm that the creation of a circular economy would, in all likelihood, result in more jobs at industrial and business locations. Ensuring there is a sustainable supply of raw materials is a global challenge that everyone must face no matter where in the world they may be. The 32,000 people employed by the REMONDIS Group around the globe all have one and the same goal: to protect the environment and create a sustainable circular economy. REMONDIS is one of the biggest employers in Germany and is continuously growing its workforce.
A circular economy should, above all, lead to more innovations and economic growth at industrial and business locations.
Both studies conclude that a circular economy is possible in both regions, if the three following conditions have been fulfilled: firstly, companies and consumers must be made aware of this issue, for example by stepping up PR work. Secondly, technical innovations must be developed to increase recycling levels and thirdly local government must show and lead the way forward by passing modern environmental laws. Only then is it possible to promote and actively support a circular economy.