An interview with Prof. Dr. Mario Schmidt of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Marketing, Logistics, and Company Planning at Pforzheim University
Sustainability, industrial ecology, the circular economy, resource efficiency – topics that occupy many a day for the Steinbeis expert Professor Dr. Mario Schmidt. In a recent interview with TRANSFER magazine, he talked about these topics and highlighted why sustainability is not possible without efficiency – and why it is important to put good thought into changes on the horizon.
Hello Professor Schmidt. You work in the field of industrial ecology. Could you start by explaining what’s so special about this topic?
The term was first used in the United States, but it’s not really known in Germany. We look at the metabolism of our industrial society. The issues we deal with are which materials and sources of energy are needed by production and consumers, what kind of emissions and waste this causes, and how this should be evaluated from an ecological standpoint. A number of methods, software tools, and databases have been developed in recent decades, some of which we also helped develop and now teach to students in special courses at Pforzheim University. We’re also thinking about ways to place less strain on the environment, especially by companies. Our special feature is that we do not talk vaguely about sustainability, as is usually the case, but we focus on quantitative aspects. For us, facts and figures count.
How important are the circular economy and resource efficiency to this?
Resource efficiency looks at two things. On the one hand, we’ll still need products and services, because our economy and society revolve around them. But on the other, we want to achieve this by using as few natural resources as possible and making a contribution to sustainability. This is also how we formulated it in VDI Guideline 4800, which covers resource efficiency. In environmentalist circles, people are quick to discredit efficiency. Yet sustainability is inconceivable without efficiency – anything else would be wasting things, which is no use to anyone.
As far as circular economy is concerned, that term has now entered common usage. The idea is to highlight that these days it’s not just recycling that counts – in Germany it was still the central idea of the waste management in the 1980s and 1990s. There are other factors, too, such as reduce, reuse, repair, or refurbish. It really is an important strategy, probably the most important of all aside from the energy transition, and it will bring about substantial change in our society and the way we go about business.
But we have to be careful. I’m not a fan of the battle cry you hear about “closing the loop.” I’m too much of a scientist to go down that route, and I know it’s simply nonsense. You get to a certain level of recycling whereby the collection and processing costs go off the end of the scale. And the same happens in terms of environmental impacts! The outcome is then more negative than the primary extraction of raw materials from mines.
But aren’t the raw materials on Earth finite? Shouldn’t we be trying to keep everything going round and round again?
Well, if you look at the facts, it’s just narrative, or it’s even a myth, something that was important to get the global environmental movement off the ground. But it can’t be substantiated. I know of no real geological scarcities – anywhere. The bottlenecks are man-made, caused by geopolitical or economic factors. What worries me more are the social and environmental conditions of mining. But they can be improved. Extracting raw materials – metals, construction minerals, but also biotic substances – accounts for half of all global greenhouse emissions.
So where do you see the biggest obstacles when it comes to the circular economy, not just in business but also in society?
A bit like the energy transition or climate protection, it’s mainly a pricing problem. Primary raw materials are too cheap; secondary materials are expensive.
Of course this is something that has to be regulated on a global level, which is why individual states struggle in an interconnected global economy. But also, everyone’s blinded by the “end-of-history illusion.” People think nothing will change much in the future. But that’s a huge misapprehension. There’ll be colossal change.
What do you think can be done to overcome these obstacles?
The key is to think about these things early on, to be bold and step forward – so if you’re a company, be one of the trendsetters; don’t get left behind as one of the trend-followers. We’re currently seeing an explosion in the number of people asking what companies’ carbon footprints are like. React too slowly and you end up in difficult terrain versus the competition, because doing the sums on the climate impact of your actions will soon be standard practice.