Featured image: Scott Ableman/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Amsterdam’s vision for 2025 incorporates Circular Economy as one of the five themes that are crucial for the future welfare and prosperity of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Region (AMR). According to the vision, there’s an all-out war against waste proclaimed within the limits of AMR. In case everything goes correctly, in ten years from now the region will be the frontrunner of Circular Economy, thriving on continuous reuse and recycle of resources. How this will happen exactly is explained by Prof. Dr. Jacqueline Cramer, Strategic Advisor of the Utrecht Sustainability Institute and a member of the Amsterdam Economic Board (the Board) in charge of Circular Economy.
(NRGM) – How do you understand the concept of Circular Economy?
(Dr. Cramer) – When you talk about Sustainability in general, there are two major challenges: climate change and resource efficiency. In the context of resources, we have a problem of disposing of them far too early. For me, personally, the Circular Economy is the economic system based on the reuse of products and raw materials, and the restorative capacity of natural resources. This means that the idea of the bio-based economy should be included here as well.
– What are the factors behind our goal to make a transition from a linear to a circular way of organizing our economic activities?
– First of all, there are major challenges in terms of sustainability right now. Especially in the European Union and The Netherlands, we are very dependent on the import of all kinds of resources. In terms of or our own security, which is tightly connected to the supply of raw materials, it is better when we are less dependent on the rest of the world. It is better to keep using the same materials and products we currently have. This is very important. But there are also positive reasons for us to live in the Circular Economy, because it promises many opportunities, social and ecological. Many studies were made regarding the economic benefits of this transition. In The Netherlands, there’s a potential to save seven billion euros if we start producing and consuming in a circular way. There is a profitable business case for the Circular Economy, which means that you can create new employment and promote innovation. It is not a threatening story, but a promising one.
– Generally speaking, is such transition possible at all?
– Oh yeah, and we are in the middle of it already. We have a lot of experience in making a transition from linear to circular. It stems from the 1970s, when we were confronted with the soil pollution that happened because we were dumping the waste in the landfills, dangerous chemical waste as well. This was causing a trouble not only for us in The Netherlands but for the neighboring countries too. Then, we set up a program to move from burying in the landfills to incineration, when it turned out that incinerating can also cause a lot of pollution. In the late 1980s, we figured that in order to avoid all that we needed to start recycling. Since then, we have built up a lot of experience in recycling and have developed new recycling techniques. In the 1990s, we started programs focusing on eco-design the Cradle-to-Cradle concept. We are not starting from scratch right now, that’s what I mean to say.
– As a Member of the Amsterdam Economic Board in charge of Circular Economy, what are your main activities? How does AMR contribute to the process?
– You can influence the product change by designing the new products for the future, but you will still need to do something with the current product in terms of reuse, repair and refurbish. You will also need to transform the waste streams into the high-value resource streams and put those back in the cycle. My work at the AMR implies that I select those waste streams of households and industry that can lead to a profitable business at a regional level. Some of those waste streams have high volumes, but they will only become profitable if they are not only high in volume but are also organized properly.
Right now we are working on establishing a business case with non-wearable textiles that are being incinerated or put into landfills, or somehow reused in insulation and housing in very small amounts, instead of being recycled. The technology for this has been improved greatly, but in order to have the necessary volumes, I will ask all the Municipalities in the AMR to collect non-wearable textile in one place. We do the same with biomass, building materials and plastic—we make sure that the volume is high enough, which creates an interest in the recycling of all those materials.
Circular Economy is one of the challenges of the AMR. We, meaning me and my team, are involved in the whole product chain in the textile recycling, including the companies that are interested in setting up a business in this direction and the companies that have waste streams that they can recycle. We organize the things that do not come off the ground on their own. All of these initiatives require consortia of companies, support of the local governments. Sometimes we need to formulate new procurement policies. From the governments, we need the room to experiment—both the physical space for the businesses and the room for maneuver for ourselves. Then, of course, we need the support of the citizens, because, at the end of the day, it is them who will be separating waste at home. Nothing happens by itself.
– What are the major obstacles on our way to Circular Economy?
– I always say that it’s the other way around. What makes the transition possible? First of all, it takes the change agents—people that take the lead either at the level of the product chain or the organization process level. We need champions, who will be not afraid to make mistakes and who will be trusted. Second, you need to work in consortia consisting of the parties at the different stages of the product chain; a mixture of people who are dedicated to the initiative. Third, financial arrangements need to be made. There has to be a transparent data exchange that will allow you to see when and how the process will become profitable. Finally, there always have to be special measures, sometimes taken by the businesses themselves and sometimes by the local governments.
My work is mainly about focusing on the regional level, although the local level is just as important, because Municipalities have their own role to play here. They need to take responsibility for the separate waste collection and to promote new businesses and startups in Circular Economy, particularly in the area of product reuse, refurbish and repair—all of the things you need to keep the product in the cycle for as long as possible. I focus on the transitions that we can make in the area of resource streams and bringing them back into the cycle.
– When can we expect to achieve Circular Economy?
– The majority of things in the context of Sustainability are always a process of change, and you can always improve. When we, at the AMR, set targets for 2025 and 2030, and formulate that the main streams should turn into high-value recycle streams, it doesn’t mean that it is all finished. It is a continuous process of change.
Text MARIIA STOLYGA