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Made from trash: Insights into innovation ecosystems around waste valorisation
This paper explores the process in which waste becomes resources to new products or inputs in distinct production processes. Whereas literature has made important advances in regard to assessing material life-cycles and the environmental benefits of recirculating waste, less attention has been devoted to the practical and organisational aspects involved in valorising waste resources. From an innovation management perspective, circular economy innovations represent an extreme case of systemic integration and complexity, since in addition to the challenges of any innovation, there is the challenge of developing synergies in distinct industrial contexts. We build upon the concept of innovation ecosystems in order to investigate how the value proposition of circular innovations is realized, what mechanisms facilitate or hinder the process. Though an in-depth study of waste handling in the city of Bodø, Norway, we document and analyse praxis concerning waste management and waste valorisation, in particular concerning industrial waste water, organic waste to biochar and tree/wood waste for heating. Our research is informed by a systems approach and adopts methodological procedures for intensive single-case studies within a critical realist tradition. Data are collected in the context of the E-lighthouse project, which is funded by the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme of the European Union. The project ran from 2016 to 2019 and had a dedicated work package to promote waste valorisation and management. Our analytical framework for describing a value chain from the perspective of waste management organization consists of the following dimensions: (i) system to collect waste, (ii) categories of waste collected, (iii) origin of waste (i.e. household vs. businesses), (iv) actual reuse of waste, (v) potential reuse of waste. We find that institutional barriers and procurement regulations play an important role in public-private partnerships, and can potentially stand for mechanisms that hinder the successful implementation of initiatives for waste valorisation. In addition, the development of adequate business models is essential to support circular economy innovations. Our research contributes to advancing knowledge concerning the economic, ecological and societal aspects of utilization of waste as bi-products. It approximates scholars in the domains of circular economy and innovation studies. Finally, we offer policy and management recommendations to effective organization of waste management to the end of valorisation.