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The paradox: For sustainability, we need change

By Michael Londesborough, based on his thoughts and memories from Innovation Week 2020

Paradox: Pro udržitelnost potřebujeme změnu

IN THE PHOTO FROM THE LEFT:

Cyril Klepek – Founder and CEO of the online waste to resource marketplace Cyrkl.cz / Petr Rokůsek – Founder of Nano Energies, investor into renewable energy sources / Robert Suchopa – Researcher and project PYREKOL lead at the UniCRE research center / Andrea Orság – Co-founder of MissionC, consulting services to help companies successfully transition to a circular economy / Geraldine Brennan – Circular Economy Lead at Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR) / Soňa Jonášová - Founder of the Institute of Circular Economy in Prague, she specializes in strategy and expert consultation

May I begin with a request? 

Please consider a word.

By this I mean the actual meaning of a word, not necessarily the notion that your brain conjures on first hearing that word. 

Are you with me? 

Well, the word is….sustainability.  

A common word in today’s parlance.  

But a word of upmost importance to Unipetrol.  Indeed a word important to every business worth its NaCl.

So, just ponder the word sustainability for a moment…

The ability to be maintained at a certain rate” is the dictionary definition. Simply put, the ability to keep going as you’re going.  No acceleration (in any direction); Steady as she goes, Capt’n! 

I submit to you that we Humans are all, quite naturally, preoccupied by sustainability.  Perhaps even obsessed by sustainability. And for a simple and fundamental reason: We all share the same battle with decay.  The merciless march of time, against which we all struggle for sustainability.  Hence the substance of sustainability is our delicate fight to keep things as similar as possible to as they are right now!

Thus, we spend billions every year on cosmetics, ointments and surgery to sustain our appearances, we invest every year hundreds of hours in the gym in an effort to sustain our strength and fitness, we spend money on our roofs and facades to sustain our houses and offices, and our companies invest into talent and ideas to sustain their competitiveness.  Many pennies in every pound go into sustainability.  Almost any investment here is justified, because the price of doing nothing, the cost of inertia, is change.  And from the fundamental laws of physics, change is invariably chaotic.  And who wants that?

What has changed in recent times, thanks primarily to science and technology, is our power to sustain even larger systems such as macroeconomic capital and global banking (such that the financial crash of 2008, whilst painful, did not yield the severe consequences of that in 1930), or our current striving for sustainability in the face of global pandemics like COVID (please do wear your masks) and even, the most powerful of all our planetary systems - our global environment.  No longer are we necessarily victims and simple on-lookers to these enormous matters; we are powerful and intelligent enough to influence them; powerful enough even to sustain them! 

To map out and delineate what current thinking has to say about sustainability, our group at Unipetrol met during Inovation Week 2020 with six individuals who are playing active roles in the transition of our economy to build a more sustainable environment and society.  Their main tool is innovation.  Innovation in technology, innovation in strategy, and innovation in philosophy.

What is sustainability?

AO argues that sustainability is achieving and fulfilling our needs without compromising the needs of future generations, a sentiment on which the entire panel agree.  However, AO also suggests that at current rates of consumption, we are using up three planets’ worth of resources. Therefore, our current trajectory is unsustainable.

We must not allow our current unsustainable track  to lead us into panic,  rather we must use our resources of intelligence and innovation to find solutions.  In this regard RS sees a current gaining momentum taking us to a change in trajectory and he is hopeful that this trend will only accelerate.

How long do we have?

CK declares that the time for talking is over, and action is necessary.  Clear goals must be set, and projects to achieve these goals launched.

GB very much agrees, emphasising the need to deliver circular economic principles to businesses.  AO and SJ impress that this will require involving all stakeholders accompanied by a general raising in awareness:  people must be able to relate to the necessary change and  there need to be tangible aspects to the change for all stakeholders to ‘buy’ into the transition to circular.

Will the transition to circularity be disruptive?

Simply put, yes!  SJ envisages big changes to established supply chains, more locally sourced and produced items, and a greater emphasis on recycling. 

CK agrees that there will be winners and losers.  New government funding schemes and incentives will be taken advantage of by the smarter, more intelligent companies.  RS concurs that the winners will be those companies with an understanding of the new opportunities that transition will bring.

What innovation required for the transition to Circular?

PR argues that the greatest innovation needed is not necessarily one in technology, but rather innovation in economic thought.  He believes that a new economic model is necessary to enable transition.

GB also stresses the need for innovation in economic thinking, highlighting the importance of cultural change and engagement with policy-makers.  But for real success in these issues, GB emphasizes the urgency of scaling initiatives – going big!

AO concurs with these thoughts, giving interesting statistics on the issue of scaling; According to AO it is estimated that the global economy is currently 9 % circular, with The Netherlands boasting 25 % circularity, whereas Norway, perhaps surprisingly, has an economy that is currently only 2.4 % circular.  AO suggests that collaboration and strong leadership is needed to set up bold targets and formulate strategy how to get to goals.  For example, The Netherlands aims to be 50 % circular by 2030.  To achieve this ambitious goal, the panel emphasize the need for collaboration between start-ups, who can nimbly innovate, and big corporations who can scale-up to really make the  change measurable.

 What should be the priority in the Czech Republic?

The panel agree on needing to step-up our capacity to transform waste into resources.  CK argues that the construction sector of the economy is the clear priority, as it dominates the overall tonnage of waste produced in the Czech Republic.  Here, the important measures to be taken are to significantly increase landfill fees in order to make recycling methods more competitive, and to promote these recycling routes. Joint ventures between dominant companies in the sector, such as Skanska, and smaller ones that concentrate on recycling should be encouraged.

This is also relevant to plastics.  Here, CK claims huge improvements in the Czech Republic regarding the recycling of industrial plastic waste.  Recycling used-plastic municipal waste is an entirely different matter, however, where innovation in both product design and effective recycling technologies are needed.  On this point, RS is ready to roll out a Unipetrol pyrolysis-based recycling method suitable for all plastic waste.

Can we leave the transition from the Linear to Circular economy to the invisible hand of the market?

A consensus in the panel to this question was no, we cannot expect meaningful change without a change in the economic model.  PR advocates the sort of change in our global economic model that no longer sets the primary goals of growth and profit.  AO suggests that any new model should aim to shorten supply chains, and believes that any new economic system must be organised in such a way that compliance to it will be necessary to remain competitive.

However, change does already seem to be in the air.  CK remarks that currently changing financial incentives are driving companies to him to ask for advice how best to become more circular.  He expects a carbon tax to push this even further.

An opportunity for accelerated change to our economic model may be found in COVID.  Several of the panel have begun to think about what could be the new ‘normal’ after COVID.  Taking the initiative, they have founded “Change for the Better” in an attempt to establish a new economic model.  To this initiative we can all contribute and thus play a role in how our economy best serves us.  An opportunity for sustainability.  Should we take it?