Benefits of circular economy for RTOs

The potential environmental benefits arising from using less energy and material inputs, combined with the economic opportunities created by new technologies and products have fuelled research interest in circular economy. SMEs benefit from this interest, as they see that circular economy could also be an opportunity for improving their business models while offering more sustainable and attractive products to their consumers.

SMEs struggle to make R&D innovations by themselves. Their lack of capacity and financial resources leads them to, in many cases, rely on the specific expertise of research and technical organisations (RTO). Hence, the role of RTOs in circular economy is to achieve incremental and ground-breaking innovations, which would then be applied by SMEs in their day-to-day business. On the other hand, most RTOs depend on public funding for developing their competences and build on capacity, including the equipment and infrastructure required for them.

Circular economy needs more than traditional R&D and requires a holistic approach for the related technologies: it needs changes in entire systems and joint efforts by researchers, technology centres, industry and SMEs, the primary sector, entrepreneurs, users, governments and civil society. In addition, favourable regulatory frameworks should be enabled in order to foster additional public and private investments.

Circular Economy


The ambitious circular economy package adopted by the EC is covering the whole cycle: production, consumption, waste management and secondary raw materials. The focus of research should be then to make sure that these areas are covered with technological breakthroughs and cost-efficient solutions for transforming the current practices and business-models.1

Main research areas

Within the whole cycle of circular economy, the topic can be broken down into the following main processes:

  • Recycling;
  • Efficient use of resources;
  • Utilisation of renewable energy sources;
  • Remanufacturing, refurbishment and reuse of products and components;
  • Product life extension;
  • Product as a service;
  • Sharing models and a shift in consumption patterns.

In addition to the more traditional applications of the circular economy (e.g. mechanical recycling), new processes are unfolding on many fronts, such as chemical recycling, closing loops for nutrients, water reuse and use of wood-based side streams in by-product applications. 2

RTO have research opportunities in the following areas:

  • Catalysis: Catalytic technology is the key means for making many industrial processes sustainable. It is able to recycle plastic waste or help it to biodegrade quickly. Link for more information:
  • Industrial biotechnology: Biotechnology makes use of enzymes and micro-organisms to improve industrial processes and create products while generating little or no waste.
  • Sustainable process industry: This area of research aims to improve process sustainability for typical energy-intensive industries such as cement, ceramics, chemical, engineering, minerals and ores, non-ferrous metals, steel and water sectors.
  • Waste and resource management: The focus of research is to develop technologies for making waste management cost-effective, so companies are able to implement a waste and resource management strategy that complies with the European Commission.
  • Closed-loop manufacturing systems: Sustainable product management is a central point of Circular Economy. Closed-loop manufacturing reincorporates waste or old products into new production through reuse, repair and recycling. Water management.
  • The Circular Bioeconomy: Bioeconomy encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy.


Circular economy business models represent a significant investment opportunity. Through the different research areas, RTO can look for different measures to help companies to implement cleaner production, minimising emissions and simultaneously raising competitiveness. Moreover, the most appropriate indicators could be analysed per sector in order to establish a homogeneous database criterion to be applied in different situations and countries. This is especially relevant for Central Europe, in which different strategies would be able to be evaluated as a whole.

During this process, RTO should consider the most appropriate ways to disseminate their knowledge. The exchange of information and experiences with companies and other institutions should be fostered to broaden knowledge and strengthen collaborations. It is of particular interest to analyse success stories of those companies that incorporate new management strategies related to circular economy, to motivate and encourage other companies to take these models as references 3

To read a customized article for SMEs please open: Benefits of circular economy for SMEs

To read a customized article for Policy please open: Benefits of circular economy in Policy

Get in contact with us

Ricardo De Valle
University of Technology Chemnitz
Project Coordinator
Chemical Engineering
Energy Engineering
Show bibliography for this article
1 (European Commission, 2017)
2 (Behrens, Rinaldi, Drabik, & Rizos, 2016)
3 (Gregorio, Pié, & Terceño, 2018)
Published on the 02.03.2020