Exploring circular economy together with master students from the University of Helsinki

This academic year students, researchers and societal actors are collaborating and exploring challenges and solutions on the broad topic of circular economy. The expected outcome is a bunch of co-produced, novel and innovative master’s theses on this important matter.

Various societal actors are faced with complex and wicked sustainability challenges. Solutions need to reflect the nature of the challenges, which is why new transdisciplinary approaches and connections of practical and academic knowledge are needed. This dynamic gave the idea of establishing a pilot project called the HELSUS Co-creation Lab, a cooperative and facilitated process for master students writing their thesis in collaboration with societal actors and researchers. The lab brings people from various backgrounds together to explore challenges and solutions regarding common interests.

HELSUS Co-creation Lab is a process that starts with each collaborating organization stating a pressing challenge regarding sustainability in their field of work. This year’s HELSUS Co-creation Lab is about the circular economy and the students are approaching this broad and multifaceted theme from four topics.

Outotec provided the students with a challenge regarding recycling Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) on a global level. The increasing rate of electronic waste is a highly relevant challenge for the circular economy. Every year around 46 million tons WEEE is generated globally, while the official recovery rate is only about 20-40 %. Informal systems with manual sorting are connected to problems regarding backyard leaching, but they still have an overall better outcome than formal systems using mechanical processes. This shows that current processes can be made more effective. Regulative approaches are needed in order to better understand the effect regulation has on recycling and to understand how it is possible to increase the recycling rate.

UPM-Kymmene Corporation is interested in how to raise the recycling rate and value of forest industry side-streams and develop markets for recycled materials. Circular economy principles are already applied in the company and technologies and innovations of using wood in various types of new products are being developed and implemented. However, UPM-Kymmene wants to know how side stream utilization can be enhanced through regulation and how markets for recycled materials can be further developed. What restrictions and possibilities can be found in regulation? Reflecting the nature of the company, the students’ are also asked to identify international trends and to compare the markets and regulation in China and in the EU.

The interests of Valio are related to circular economy processes integrated to biogas plants. Valio has a big target to reduce the carbon footprint of milk to zero by 2035 by decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions within the milk production chain.  The main tools to mitigate emissions are a better utilization of grasslands as carbon sinks, management and reduction of emissions from peatlands, and development of circular economy practices and processes to better utilize side streams of the milk production chain, especially cow manure that is rich in nutrients and energy. In the HELSUS Co-creation Lab, the Valio challenge is to improve the overall feasibility of the biogas plants. For example to improve the quality and versatility of the products of the plant and by studying the possibilities to build larger circular economy integrates that can utilize the side fractions of the biogas plant both in farm-sized smaller plants and in bigger industrial plants.

Ministry of the Environment is interested in the sustainable recycling of nutrients; a topic connected to climate and biodiversity policies, the sustainable development goals as well the circular economy. The main nutrients the Ministry of the Environment is interested in are phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon, which are important for plant growth, soil quality and carbon sequestration. These nutrients comes from various sources, ex. livestock manure, sewage sludge, bio waste or surplus grass. Through biomass processing, recycled nutrients could replace chemical fertilizers in Finland. The whole chain of nutrient recycling should be taken into consideration, to set criteria for the biomass origin, for the process and for the products. 

These four topics are narrowed down according to both the partners and students interest and knowledge. This year we have gained lot of attention from law students, so at least the regulative side of the challenges is covered. We also have students that look at economy and market development as well as various implementation possibilities.

Highlighting the process

When adapting a co-creative approach to problem solving, the process can be more important for the learning outcome than the results themselves. The lab strives to be an open process that helps to balance, include and respect various viewpoints. This way we hope to plan, frame, analyze and make conclusions on common problems in an interdisciplinary way and with an understanding of the complex nature of the challenges.

The lab started this October with a session on team building. The Co-creation Lab arranged teams around each of the above-mentioned challenges, and through a mind mapping exercise common interests could be identified and preliminary research questions formed. In the process, we saw that the lab does not only connect students with partners, but the lab also gives opportunities for social networking between everyone included. The HELSUS Co-creation Lab may therefore function as a platform for future projects.

This autumn the Co-creation Lab process will go on with students formulating their research questions, identifying and positioning their work in a wider context and preparing for the individual research period that spans from November to February. This independent period is not without activities, small team meeting will be held and fieldtrips to the stakeholders will be arranged. Next year the lab will come together to share experiences and analyze results of the research work. In spring, the students are given time to finalize their theses. The HELSUS Co-creation Lab will come to its end in April 2020, when everyone are welcome to attend an event where the students present their co-produced master’s theses. The students, lab personnel and partners will all be present to discuss and share their experiences of the lab.

The people behind HELSUS Co-creation lab are eager and anticipatory for the process. We hope that the lab co-produce eleven useful master’s theses that in their own way contribute to the topic of circular economy. More news on the HELSUS Co-creation Lab next spring.

Visit the HELSUS Co-creation Lab webpage