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Circular economy

New study aims to uncover Danish waste habits in largest survey yet

The research project Change4Circularity at the University of Southern Denmark, Roskilde University, and The Royal Danish Academy aims to empower citizens, public authorities, and private companies to recycle more, consume less, and sort waste better to contribute to a circular economy. The research will be based on the largest dataset ever in the field, collected in Astra's Mass Experiment involving 40,000 children and young people.

By Sebastian Wittrock, , 2/9/2024

Denmark's consumption of plastics and textiles is increasing, and this poses a problem.

Not only does the production of the Danes' short-lived clothing, packaging, and plastic products emit enormous amounts of CO2, but a large portion of these materials is not recycled or reused. Instead, they end up as waste in nature or in the wrong waste bin, leading to their incineration and further release of greenhouse gases.

This is one of the issues that the newly launched research project Change4Circularity aims to address.

The research, led by the University of Southern Denmark, Roskilde University, and The Royal Danish Academy, is conducted in collaboration with the national science center Astra, which each year stands behind the Mass Experiment. Additionally,  Brancheforeningen Cirkulær, the Danish Society for Nature Conservation, Plastic Change, and the Council for Green Transition are partners in the project.

Supported by 7.4 million from the Innovation Fund, the research and innovation project is part of TraCE, the national partnership for circular economy.

The overarching goal is to reduce waste, says Lykke Margot Ricard, research leader and associate professor in sustainable innovation and technology at the University of Southern Denmark.

- In the circular economy, the strategy often revolves around recycling and various recycling technologies, but we also want to focus on prevention strategies, Lykke Margot Ricard states.

- What can we do to prevent so much waste from being generated in the first place? How can we reduce the massive waste of resources, especially in plastics and textiles? To find out, we need much more data.

Largest data collection

The research will be based on a data collection through Astra's Mass Experiment, in which 40,000 children and young people will participate. In August and September 2024, students from primary school and secondary education will conduct a survey and collect data on plastic pollution in the Danish nature, plastic waste management at home, and textiles in their own wardrobes.

Lene Christensen, Astra's program manager for the Mass Experiment, is excited that the data collection will contribute to the research project:

- We look forward to offering students the chance to participate in a  new and relevant research project, where they can contribute with important data and help us understand the Danes' waste habits regarding plastics and textiles. This is a major motivational factor for the students.

The experiment builds on the experiences from the 2019 Mass Experiment, conducted in collaboration with, among others, Roskilde University. Back then, 57,000 students from Danish schools and gymnasiums participated and mapped plastic pollution in nature. It was the first time plastic in nature was scientifically monitored across an entire nation.

This time, the young people's investigation will be even more extensive, becoming the largest Danish data collection in the field ever.

- It will certainly be interesting to see the development from 2019 to 2024 regarding plastic pollution in the Danish environment. For example, has the regulation introduced had the desired effect?, asks Kristian Syberg, associate professor in environmental risk at Roskilde University.

- Now, we're adding some extra layers. Students will map the handling of plastic waste in their own homes. This could help us understand which waste fractions are difficult to sort and might end up in the wrong bins. We can also link what we find in the environment to consumption in Danish homes. Having such a large dataset is extraordinary and will be very exciting to work with.

Lack of material understanding

Students will also look at textiles in their homes to see what they are made of, as well as register which textiles are discarded in the new textile sorting introduced in July 2023.

This is significant because it might address the lack of material understanding, says Else Skjold, associate professor in design and sustainability at The Royal Danish Academy.

- A lot of knowledge about textiles has been lost, both among the population and in the industry. Many people don't know whether their clothes, sheets, and other textiles are made from plant fibers, oil, or animals. This is partly due to the throwaway culture that has emerged, says Else Skjold.

- That's why this project is so important. We can teach future generations that textiles have value and come from somewhere. Perhaps the children can even educate their parents a bit.

Useful for product innovation

The large amount of data collected can be used for several different purposes.

The experiment itself and the new knowledge gained by the researchers can be used to increase Danes' awareness of waste. Among other things, educational materials will be developed based on the experiment.

But the new knowledge can also be fed back to manufacturers and the waste management sector, explains Lykke Margot Ricard.

- When we learn about the findings of the most common plastic types in nature and household waste, the reasons for waste, and the challenges with sorting, we can feed this back into the design phase of the manufacturers. The aim is to create products and packaging suitable for a circular economy. But also municipalities and the waste sector can use this knowledge to assess how it makes most sense to sort our waste. For instance, the dataset could contribute to the entire discussion about what should be sorted manually in households and what might be more cost-effective to automate, says Lykke Margot Ricard.

- A circular economy requires that we increase the population's knowledge about materials and the possibilities for better utilizing resources. And that's what we're doing with this project.


·      The research project Change4Circularity is supported by the Innovation Fund and is part of TraCE, the national partnership for circular economy.

·      It is led by the University of Southern Denmark with Lykke Margot Ricard, associate professor at the Department of Technology and Innovation, as the research leader. Kristian Syberg, associate professor at the Department of Science and Environment at Roskilde University, and Else Skjold, associate professor at the Department of Architecture and Design at The Royal Danish Academy, lead for plastics and textiles, respectively.

·      The project's partners are: the University of Southern Denmark, Roskilde University, The Royal Danish Academy, Astra, Plastic Change, the Danish Society for Nature Conservation, the Council for Green Transition, and Brancheforeningen Cirkulær.

·      The project will last for 3 years, with a total budget of 11,267,243 DKK, of which 7,408,377 DKK comes from the Innovation Fund.

·      The research is based on Astra's Mass Experiment, in which 40,000 students participate as part of their science education in school and scientific education in high school. Over several weeks in August and September 2024, they will collect the largest Danish dataset ever on plastic waste in nature, plastic waste habits, and textile products in homes.

·      The Mass Experiment is supported by the Villum Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and the KFI Industrial Fund.

·      The goal of the research project is to map Danish waste management and plastic pollution and to increase the understanding of resources and materials among citizens, authorities, and companies. The idea is that the collected knowledge can be used for concrete product innovation.

Editing was completed: 09.02.2024