Researchers of the Romulus Academy Programme (Critical Materials in Circular Economy of Cities) gathered in Tampere in August 2023 to discuss the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the ‘Cities of the Future’ seminar. The participants stressed the importance of raising awareness and making the impact of consumption choices visible as a means of supporting the circular economy of cities and promoting sustainable development.
The group discussion of the seminar focused on circular economy themes, in particular from the perspective of the projects funded under the Romulus programme. The intense discussion highlighted the role of money and convenience in improving the appeal of recycling and the circular economy, and the importance of legislation in guiding the choices of both individuals and businesses.
During the discussion, participants were asked to consider which factors were accelerating or slowing down the sustainability transition. They were asked to focus in particular on UN Sustainable Development Goals 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 13 (climate action). Researchers from the Romulus programme also took a position on how these factors could be influenced to ensure that the goals are actually met within the planned timeframe.
Money makes the circular economy go round
When discussing sustainable development, the researchers held that money influences decision-making by individuals, businesses and policymakers alike.
In everyday life, talk of sustainable choices often remains mere empty words, because the earnings logic of the prevailing economic system ties people into unsustainable economic structures. The sustainability transition therefore requires first addressing the root causes at the economic and production level.
In the group discussion, this idea was summed up by stating that “there is no irresponsible consumption without irresponsible production”. A good example of this is production based on the easy availability of fossil fuels, which feeds irresponsible consumption as long as it is profitable.
If fossil-based products were significantly more expensive or more difficult to obtain, consumers would start to prefer more environmentally friendly products in their daily lives. In the same way, promoting recycled materials in production would lead to more sustainable consumption. However, the recovery of recycled materials is hampered by the fact that their flows are often unpredictable and uneven in quality. Addressing these challenges requires money, if we are to unblock the bottlenecks in the circular economy.
Legislation influences and accelerates development
Legislation is an important means of guiding these choices and developments. Its role in guiding people and businesses is undeniable. For example, the ban on tobacco advertising has been effective in reducing smoking and has shown in concrete terms the impact that a ban on advertising can have. Legislation could therefore help in tackling advertising that encourages irresponsible consumption. As an example of this, seminar participants mentioned the sorting and composting of biowaste, which many people find cumbersome. Finland’s new Waste Act, which entered into force in 2021, will accelerate the transition by obliging all residents of built-up areas to recycle their biowaste either through separate collection or through composting. It was pointed out during the seminar discussion that wider legislation on the circular economy is already well developed in many areas, but that technical progress is not yet at the required level in all respects.
While it is easy to come up with examples of the positive effects of legislation on the environment and human wellbeing, it does not always solve problems in the best possible way. The researchers said that short-sightedness in policymaking, for example, produces stop-go legislation and hampers long-term investment. Decision-making also involves a lot of ignorance, misconceptions and taboos.
The scale of legislation and questions of equity in climate action deserve their own deliberation. The global sustainability challenge is perhaps best met through global governance.
Change starts with raising awareness
Major natural disasters cause a great deal of human suffering, but at the same time they illustrate the abstract and complex sustainability problems people face in their everyday environments. Disaster also drives change in people’s attitudes, actions and influence at local level. The researchers participating in the group discussion wondered whether the same phenomenon could be exploited in a front-loaded manner.
For example, composting could be promoted by demonstrating its benefits for people, the environment and society. Making the recycling process visible could engage people in recycling by removing doubts about whether their actions ultimately matter.
In an ever faster-paced world, visualising processes over time is also a good way to give people and businesses confidence that their actions are an important part of the solution to sustainability problems. This is still the case even if the tangible effects of the actions are only seen after some time. These actions can include social action, which can help people avoid cynicism and paralysis, for example when the actions of transnational oil companies seem to negate the environmental impact of people’s everyday actions.
By identifying ways of acting and influencing that suit different situations, an individual or a company can play a role in reforming social norms. This can encourage others to change, and it can ultimately affect both economic structures and legislation.
The path to sustainable cities is built on societal foundations, but individuals who have faith in the impact of their own actions play an important role in paving the way.
The Romulus Academy Programme comprises 13 research projects. The programme explores the occurrence and chemical composition and properties of critical metals, integrating this with research on the circular economy of cities. Romulus examines processes, products and services that are based on sustainable development. Learn more: www.aka.fi/en/romulus.