Story | 11/23/2022 14:10:20 | 14 min Read time

How the circular economy ethos has revolutionised our way of life

Rachael Pells


“Ultimately, circular economy is about maintaining a high quality standard of living without owning as much or compromising the globe’s resources,” expert says. We might not be there yet, but we’re well on our way – and these circular economy milestones helped us get to where we are today.

Circular economy innovations are all around us. From renting a car on an online platform to recycling metals from an old smartphone, many of us take these day-to-day, resource-saving ideas for granted. They are the punctuation marks in the conversation of our day to day lives – tools of convenience, just as they should be.

But the systems, services and products we have in place today did not just happen by themselves. There are particular innovations that had to happen to get us to where we are now. So here we are: welcome to a day where past and present circular economy innovations meet!

1910s: The humble milk carton brings a radical shift in attitudes

You’ve just sprung out of bed on a Monday morning. Still groggy, you reach for the coffee machine. You open the fridge door to grab some milk – and toss the used carton in the recycling bin without stopping to think about it.

The design for your milk carton – first patented by businessman John Van Wormer in 1915 – was made to be lightweight and foldable, and, eventually, recyclable. Its invention revolutionised the delivery and storage of milk by making it significantly cheaper and more practical for farms and consumers.

The invention of the carton revolutionised the delivery and storage of milk.

Today Pure-Pak or Tetra-pack cartons, as they are trademarked, live on through many user cycles. The cartons’ layers can be separated for recycling and manufacturing into new products such as cardboard boxes. Now, companies such as PolyAI and Eurotecho are even using thermoforming technologies to turn old cartons into roof tiles: a fantastic example of how the circular economy ethos is allowing decades-old technology to be transformed through modern innovations.

In 2019, the dairy company Arla switched to using renewable wood-based bioplastics in gable-top paperboard cartons for milk, yoghurt and cooking products. The new packaging is even more environmentally responsible because it is made of a renewable, wood-based raw material.

This is where the beauty of circular economy lies.

“Age-old innovations have influenced behaviour in a particular direction. Circular economy has revived interest in quite a lot of old ideas like reuse, repair, return, and recycle,” says Peter Hopkinson, co-director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Circular Economy.

Thanks to this circular economy milestone, we now have: a whole market for recyclable packaging materials ranging from carton to plastic – and a bunch of conscious consumers expecting nothing less. According to a 2020 report by consulting company McKinsey, the majority of survey-takers are willing to pay for more sustainable packaging.

But progress needs constant effort: The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, launched four years ago with more than 500 signatories committing to use only reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025, just reported that recent progress varies. While the use of recycled content in plastic packaging continues to rise and over half of business signatories have cut their use of virgin plastics since 2018, overall use of virgin plastic among the group increased in 2021 back to 2018 levels, and the target of the commitment might not be met by 2025.

1970s: Bottle returns introduce consumer participation

Depending on where you are in the world, that milk for your coffee might be more likely to come from a glass bottle. Or perhaps you choose to start your day with a breakfast smoothie, poured fresh from a recycled glass bottle. As most of us become more clued up on the dangers of single-use plastic, glass packaging – such as that used for your smoothie bottle – is enjoying a renaissance.

The bottle return system is one of the best circular economy ideas in practice by far.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that glass bottle return systems came into popularity, encouraging consumers to take an active role in the recycling of glass containers by offering them a token or payment per item returned.

“The bottle return system is one of the best circular economy ideas in practice by far,” says Lykke Margot Ricard, a researcher in innovation and technology management at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU). In Denmark, where she is based, the bottle return system includes PET bottles and aluminium beer and soda cans.

Some bottle schemes rely on consumers paying a deposit, refundable upon the item’s safe return. Studies have shown them to be very successful: in some countries, the return rates are marked at 90 per cent or higher.

“To many people, circular economy means focusing on new business models,” Ricard says and continues: “It also means a focus on the materials that we select for use: almost two-thirds of global emissions are generated by the production of basic materials.”

Thanks to this circular economy milestone, we now have: successful glass bottle deposit return systems in 10 European countries. Total recycling rates range from 82 to 97 percent. And it’s not just for plastic bottles: Kamupak, a Finnish circular economy start up, offers a return system for recyclable take away boxes and coffee cups for restaurants and grocery stores.

2010s: Clothing gets a new lease of life

Over a breakfast of organic oats and seasonal fruits, your eyes might skim over yesterday’s newspaper. You clean your teeth with a bamboo toothbrush, pull on a favourite shirt and jacket – vintage, of course – and head out the door.

Deciding what to wear in the morning is no longer a simple question of style. Increased awareness over the damaging impact of fast fashion and non-recyclable materials means that the dilemma has grown to new dimensions. It’s a global problem, but particularly felt in the west, where consumers are spoilt for choice by cheap and easily obtainable fashion. In the US, around 85 per cent of all textiles thrown away in 2017 were either burned or dumped in a landfill. That is roughly 13 million tonnes.

These days, both brands and consumers are becoming more waste conscious, however, thanks in part to new regulations encouraging the use of recycled materials in textile manufacturing processes. Many high street fashion retailers offer discount incentives for shoppers willing to return their unwanted clothes and donate them to recycling schemes.


Now, one Finnish company is taking the mission a step further. Infinited Fiber takes on several tonnes of unwanted textiles that would otherwise be turned into landfill or burned (potentially releasing toxic fumes into the atmosphere) and breaks the materials back down into their basic fibres.

The reverse-weaving technology separates the clothing fibres out to its basic, polymer level, and reconstructs them to create new textiles that can be turned into new clothes or other vital products. The innovation addresses the twin challenges of what to do with the piles of textile waste generated globally, while also tackling society’s continued desire for new threads.

Thanks to this circular economy milestone, we now have: opportunities for massive fashion companies to turn one man’s trash into another’s garb. For example, Inditex, the parent company of fast fashion brand Zara, recently invested over 100 million euros in a fibre made completely out of textile waste.

2020s and beyond: Technology takes centre court

Let’s get back to your day. You’re out the door, right on time. It’s time to hail a ride: the carpool is waiting and you can catch up on emails on your refurbished smartphone during the journey.

A recycled phone signifies a larger movement.

For researchers like Lykke Margot Ricard at the University of Southern Denmark, a recycled phone signifies a larger movement. Improving the sustainability of electrical and personal technology products such as smartphones will be a major focus as we continue the transition towards a circular economy in the coming years.

“If we can create products that can be repaired and upgraded – if we could change the batteries in headphones or a smartphone for instance at home – it keeps the items functional and it will also mean we want to keep them longer, reducing waste in the long term,” she explains.

“It all comes back to the design phase. If something is of high quality, if it is beautiful and if there is emotional value in it, there will be a second-hand market for it in the future.”

Thanks to this paradigm shift, we now have: luxury vehicles with a green twist, among others. In the UK, one innovative company is even transforming classic Rolls Royce and Bentley cars for the modern road by converting them to electric-powered engines.

2020s and beyond: Food and drink packaging gets an update

By late-morning, you’re no doubt getting hungry – it’s time to start thinking about what to have for lunch. Increasingly, the packaging your meal comes in can have a big impact on your choices.

Even the label on your beverage has its own carbon footprint. But new innovations are helping to make these vital elements more sustainable, too. One solution to come from UPM is UPM Raflatac Forest FilmTM, a transparent label made from wood-based raw materials. It’s a renewable alternative to plastics but is identical in quality and performance compared to fossil-based films.

In 2022, UPM announced the latest addition to its range of sustainable and recyclable packaging papers for food. UPM Specialty Papers provides papers that can be used to craft food packaging that are renewable from sustainably managed forests, reducing the need for traditional plastics and other fossil fuel materials.

Now, UPM ConfidioTM allows food to be packaged in a way that is moisture and grease-resistant. The packaging paper is repulpable and designed to be recycled with regular fibre-recycling streams, pushing the boundary of what can be packaged in paper, without compromising sustainability or functionality.

Thanks to this paradigm shift, we now have: well-packaged drinks and convenience foods without the guilt that comes with nonrenewable plastic packaging – a recipe for success.

Equitability is in, ownership is out: where will the next milestones take us?

In the future, University of Exeter’s Peter Hopkinson believes we will rent many of the products we love and need to use on a daily basis. Rental companies for clothes, electric cars and other technologies already provide this service, but we could soon live in a world where ownership of even our tools and furniture is passé.

“The aim is to create better designed products that are perhaps more expensive if you had to buy them, but that you can access for a smaller fee for use a number of times,” he says.

Many sustainable solutions remain a luxury for underprivileged groups and regions of the world.

Ultimately, he believes, “The circular economy is all about systems, trying to draw together different subgroups of activities – materials, material security, supply chain risks, renewable energy – and bringing them together to create a joined up conversation.”

Part of Hopkinson’s work now is about seeking and advising on new ways to make access to the circular system more equitable, he explains. Many sustainable solutions remain a luxury for underprivileged groups and regions of the world.

 “In the long run, we are looking at ways people can maintain a high quality standard of living without owning and buying so much, or compromising other parts of the globe’s resources,” Hopkinson concludes. 

Now, it’s time to resume your day. You order lunch through a food delivery app and while you wait, you browse some home-swap websites and Airbnb, dreaming of a wooden cabin by the sea for your next holiday. Another typical week has begun.

UPM’s major circular bioeconomy moments

Circular bioeconomy has been central to the UPM business model since even before the phrase became popular. In 1962, one of the world’s first flotation deinking systems was commissioned at the UPM Schongau paper mill in southern Germany.

In flotation deinking, air is blown into the fibre pulp of old and used papers. Ink is attached to the air bubbles, which lift the ink to the surface of the flotation cell, from which it can be removed. This processing technology was a major breakthrough for paper recycling plants – and is still largely used today.

By reducing the need for virgin materials or chemicals, carbon footprint can be lowered.

Sixty years on, UPM is focusing its attention on waste-reducing methods such as side-stream utilisation. What’s different, according to Taru Päiväläinen, Manager (Environment, Responsibility) is the scale of the mission, and the tools available to help achieve it. “Our big vision is to go beyond fossils,” she explains. “By reducing the need for virgin materials or chemicals, carbon footprint can be lowered.”

UPM has committed to sending zero solid process waste to landfill by 2030 and to use only recycled nutrients in the company’s effluent treatment plants by 2030. “The more we can be circular in our production methods, the less we will need to extract precious natural resources,” says Päiväläinen.

UPM has committed to sending zero solid process waste to landfill by 2030.

Within the next eight years, UPM will transition towards becoming a Zero Solid Waste to Landfill company globally, meaning all of its paper processing side-streams will be utilised for much-needed energy and nutrients.

In recent years, new UPM businesses including UPM Biofuels are helping to champion sustainability in manufacturing practices. “Crude tall oil is generated as a residue in our chemical pulp production and used as raw material in our Lappeenranta biorefinery to produce UPM Bioverno renewable diesel and naphtha,” Päiväläinen explains.

The renewable diesel generated is already being used as low emission fuel in vehicles, and the naphtha can be used as drop-in chemical – for example as a raw material for UPM Raflatac’s Forest Film label material and in milk cartons. Thanks to a collaboration between UPM, Dow, Elopak and Arla, the fossil-based barrier layer of a milk carton has been replaced with a wood-based layer made from sustainable, residue-based naphtha.

“Circular economy is a shared mission that highlights the importance of cross-industry collaboration and value networks. It cannot be done in silos.”



Rachael Pells

Rachael Pells

Journalist | Rachael Pells is a journalist and author specialising in science and research. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including WIRED, The Guardian and Research Europe. Her latest book, Genomics: How Genome Sequencing Will Change Our Lives, is now out.
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