Towards the circular economy - Sharing the results

Sustainability issues have created many complex societal challenges to tackle. Working together towards the solutions is essential - and for this purpose the pilot project called HELSUS Co-creation lab was launched. The Co-creation lab is a cooperative and facilitated process for master’s students to write their theses in collaboration with researchers and societal actors. It is also an opportunity to learn transdisciplinary skills. This year, the lab was focused on challenges around the circular economy.

When the lab started in autumn 2019, students were given societal challenges by partners to tackle. Students were able to narrow down these topics around their interests and their field of study. The lab process consisted of six sessions which took place between October 2019 and April 2020.  

With the theses nearly finished, it was the perfect time to share the results with others. The lab was conducted as an online seminar where participants were delighted to listen all the presentations that students and partners had prepared. The whole lab process was an interesting journey and great learning opportunity for everyone involved. 

The UPM-Kymmene Corporation was interested in increasing the recycling rate and value of forest-based materials (side streams and products) and developing markets for the recycled materials. The theses focused on legislation, voluntary commitments and new business opportunities. After the presentations, the representative from UPM concluded that the master’s theses have deepened their understanding of the regulatory framework. The presented results made it clear that voluntary commitments alone without sufficient regulation are not enough to enhance the circular economy. 

Outotec provided the students with a challenge regarding the recycling of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) on a global level. Presentations opened students’ topics around whether legislation fails or succeeds to promote the recovery of Critical Raw Materials and circular economy. Through their research, the students managed to highlight the complexity of recycling and the need for renewing legislation to promote this better in the future. Outotec representative mentioned that the aspects of both theses are critical for processing the plant investments in the future. 

 Valio’s challenge was around the topic on how to develop biogas plants as versatile platforms for the circular economy ecosystem. The theses focused on implementation of the Renewable Energy Directive, analyzing suitable combinations for co-digestion of cow-manure with other types of biowaste and analyzing the economic feasibility of small-scale biogas plants in dairy farms. Valio representatives thought that all the theses responded well to the challenge and Valio's needs from different perspectives. In addition, it is very useful to study the profitability of biogas plants in different scenarios and the results may contribute to designing a network of biogas plants. 

The challenge of the Ministry of the Environment was about the sustainable recycling of essential nutrients. The ministry also wanted to promote studies on efficient nutrient removal from wastewater and the related hazards, risks and doubts. Students in this group have been researching e.g. attitudes towards recycled phosphorus fertilizers, the precautionary principle related to these and the legal review of gypsum treatments on agricultural fields. Ministry of the Environment had a clear conception of how these topics were connected to each other. As a result, the level of protection and thus the degree of risk allowed is a political decision. It also needs to be remembered that there is a constant need for scientific research related to these issues.  

All participating in the webinar were happy to notice that even during these exceptional circumstances, students have been able to produce high-quality results in their master’s theses projects. Visit the lab webpage to learn more about the co-creation lab. The next Lab is planned to be launched in January 2021.  

What is HELSUS Co-creation Lab: A cooperative, scheduled and facilitated process for students doing their master's thesis. Through the lab it is possible to build connections between actors working with sustainability challenges and master's students who seek solutions to them. The Lab is conducted by Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Sciences, partner companies, and students with multidisciplinary backgrounds.