Featured Image: Heather Kennedy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Circular Economy is the new it-word. Why all the hype? Recycling, green design and renewable energy—the important constituents of sustainable living—have been around for quite a while. However, it is relatively recently that the concept of Circular Economy in The Netherlands became popular among a broad variety of actors. Among the latter are municipalities, businesses and non-profits. Dutch companies pioneer sustainable electronics, recycle old aircrafts, and re-use CO₂. Meanwhile, the municipalities seek to establish a business case for repurposing different materials and try to ensure that necessary legislation is in place. All of this might help The Netherlands to be the world’s first “circular hotspot”. Last year, the Netherlands Circular Hotspot campaign (NLCH) began. This initiative is aimed at sharing the insights from innovative Dutch projects and organizations with the rest of the world. One of the four organizations behind the NLCH campaign is Circle Economy, the non-profit cooperative that aims to accelerate the transition towards CE through concrete projects with its members and partners. NRG Magazine has reached out to Guido Braam, one of the creative visionaries behind the campaign.
(NRGM) – First of all, let’s start with finding out how you understand the concept of Circular Economy (CE). What is it?
(Guido) – I think, it’s about creating the value and maintaining the value to the extent that it is contributing to human development in balance with nature. It’s quite broad. It’s not only about making sure that we can reuse the resource continuously, but also about a paradigm change towards a new economy where we are much more aware of how we create and maintain value
– And what role does nature have to play here? Is it central?
– It is. But human development is also central. CE differs from sustainability where the approach is “do less bad” rather than “do good”. I think, sustainability feels like a setback in our development. Circular Economy is much more of a step forward here.
– In The Netherlands, it is quite common to think that the country is fit to lead the transition to CE, partly because people here are close to nature.
– Let’s be honest. We are the frontrunners of Circular Economy, but we are not out-competing others in all of the aspects. A lot has to be improved—how we integrate renewable energy, for instance. But we have a good background. Because of the land scarcity, we are rather a high-density city than a high-density country. With our 17 million inhabitants we are smaller than Rio de Janeiro, we are just as big as London. We need to be smart to find out how to preserve nature, how to live there, how to be effective with the scarcity of land. Our experience in managing water and food not only made us innovative but also led to the creation of an export product. We showed everyone how to make sure every piece of land is used in the best possible way. That’s also one of the reasons why we made some progress in terms of CE and why we need to keep doing that—because of that necessity.
– It’s refreshing to hear someone being not too optimistic about the state of things. Now that the concept of CE caught on, it is being talked about a lot in the industry. But when people are so optimistic about things, it always raises suspicions.
– Actually, in The Netherlands, we are not too proud of the things we do well. People from other countries say: “Wow, there’s a lot going on here in terms of circularity.” But if you ask a Dutch person who is dealing with this on a daily basis, he will say: “Well, I don’t know, we can do better.” On one hand, it’s a good attitude. On the other—if you shout to the whole world that you have the ambition to become a frontman for CE, that would make you improve internally. It obligates you to be the best. If you claim the space, you have to fulfill it. I hope that this will be one of the outcomes of the NLCH campaign—that we become a little bit more proud of what we do.
– Globally, which country can be exemplified as a leader in CE?
– It’s always difficult to say, because there are so many aspects in CE. Part of it is renewable energy, and The Netherlands is doing a really bad job there. It’s also about resource-efficiency—then, according to OECD, we are indeed performing the best. But in general, I would say that Germany and Denmark are really good. Especially in Denmark where it’s part of people’s mentality. Waste separation is in their DNA, much more than it is here. Scotland has big ambitions. Germany is also really good, although it is less explicit about it—they implement it without doing a lot of marketing around it.
– So, sort of like the Dutch—doing things but not really advertising it.
-Yeah, in terms of CE, we have done it [marketing] a little. You can hear us and see us in Europe, when it’s about the Circular Economy Package. We are less modest than Germany. Like I said, sometimes being proud has a purpose, because it creates positive competition.
– Can we talk about specific dates in this context? Can we establish a year or a deadline for becoming circular? Or is it too far-fetched to think about it this way?
– There are two deadlines, I think. One has to do with the research of the Stockholm Resilience Center. If you combine that with the Club of Rome report “The Limits to Growth” that was updated a year ago, then you will see that we will not make it by the end of the century if we don’t do any drastic changes. For instance, one of the biggest threats is the Sixth Extinction.
A lot of people underestimate the effect of losing the biodiversity—we are losing so many vital species that eventually it will lead to our own extinction, and the bees are a good example of that. Sounds dramatic, but that’s how it is. The other deadline… The first website was launched 25 years ago. Back then, you couldn’t imagine what that first website would bring; that it would translate into apps and IoT. You can see how our daily lives were changed by the Internet connection.
Circular Economy has been there for a long time, but right now it starts to become popular. After a couple of years, everybody will be disappointed because it won’t bring what’s expected. But after that, it will become eternalized. Perhaps we won’t be calling it this way anymore because it will be part of our daily routine. If it took 25 years for the website to develop, then maybe in 25 years the Circular Economy will develop too.
– Do we need a leader? Do we need one country showing the way to CE?
– We need multiple leaders. The reason we use the Netherlands as a CE hotspot is that the county has the EU Presidency this year. The time is great, also, because the European Commission has just launched its Circular Economy Package. During the next half a year there will be political discussions about the potential of CE in Europe. For Europe, CE is the geopolitical question more than it is an economic one, because Europe imports 60% of its resources. In the 70s, the Dutch came up with a new strategy in soccer that didn’t make them a World Champion, but it got them into Finals four times. The Dutch soccer strategy inspired many others. You can see its influence now in Bayern Munich and Barcelona. So, if we come up with something new, with examples that make people around the world aware of what is possible, that is great. Let’s set up a standard and inspire others to do better.
– “The Netherlands as a Circular Economy Hotspot”—can you tell me more about this campaign?
– We started talking about it a couple of years ago with our Prime Minister. We had several meetings with different stakeholders who all agreed that, when The Netherlands has the EU Presidency, we should use the moment and push harder to become a CE hotspot. Right now we are writing the vision of what it means to be a circular hotspot. We’ve been organizing trade missions and inviting people from all over the world to visit, to see whether there is interest from abroad and interest to invest in our export product. Finally, we are building a big exhibition close to Schiphol where we will have all examples of CE projects in one building.
– What are the major obstacles preventing us from a transition to CE?
– First of all, vested interests. Without blaming anyone, but if you are interested in an incinerating plant, it is very unlikely that you will switch to 100% recyclability. Second, we live in a linear system where regulations and financial arrangements are based on the take-make-waste principle. We see a lot of funny things—that you cannot sell waste, for instance. Although some people are interested in buying it, you are not allowed to sell it, according to law.
– So, legally, we are lagging behind?
– Sometimes it takes three to four years to change the relevant law in Europe.
– But will the necessary changes come?
– It is already changing. Here’s an example—The Netherlands has an excess of phosphorus, and there are already exceptions made to allow selling it. The challenge is not to complain about the regulations but to show which alternative you have business-wise.
– Which current Dutch projects in the domain of CE do you find successful?
– The example that comes to my mind is Park 2020 because it is a project that turned out to be successful not only in terms of CE but also financially. It’s a business park in Hoofddorp, close to Schiphol Airport. Their buildings are designed in such a manner that they are ready for the disassembly without materials mixing, which means that everything can be reused later. It has been built according to the principles of Cradle-to-Cradle, and there is almost no toxicity in the building. Its resources passport lays out all resources that are used in the building, so it is easy to calculate the residual value. Park2020 turned out to be very successful in the times when the construction business was almost bankrupt, even though they had higher prices per meter, compared to other buildings across the road. It’s a good example of how to build for tomorrow; how to make a cathedral that can exist forever rather than depreciate in 30 years. It used to take 30 years to build it—now it needs 30 years to become obsolete. The good news is that Park2020 changed that.