100% circular countries in the near future?

An eco-neighbourhood in the Netherlands

Eva-Lanxmeer – eco-neighbourhood finished in 2009, Culembourg, Netherlands © Thi Hong Cam Vo

On a nationwide scale, switching from a linear economy to a circular economy starts by changing attitudes. Meanwhile, it’s necessary to transform our industrial, economic and social structures in order to encourage the eco-design of products and materials, favour collaboration between industries and promote the economics of functionality. Too great a challenge? Not for the Netherlands, which will be circular by 2050, a target set forth in 2016 by the Dutch government.
Voyage to the (new) centre of the circular Earth?

Is the idea of a circular nation still utopian? The report titled “A circular economy in the Netherlands in 2050”, published by the Dutch government in 2016, gives a concrete form to this ambition.

Circularity: the shared horizon of a pioneering country

The strategy defined at the highest level of the State recommends the use of renewable resources, the recycling and the optimal use of goods to limit the impact of human activity on the environment, and the protection of public health. To be put into practice these principles have need a firm economic and social foothold.

In this case, how can this transition be managed in economic spheres? By optimising existing structures to reduce “traditional” production costs, while creating new opportunities. The solutions deployed include the eco-design of products, the recycling of raw materials, the recovery of waste and the sharing economy. The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific estimates that the country could earn a profit of €7.3 billion per year and create more than 50,000 more jobs by adopting a circular economy (1). The consumption of raw materials would be slashed by 100 megatonnes, or one-quarter of what the Netherlands imports every year today. And CO2 emissions should drop by 17 megatonnes.

A radical transformation or a gradual transition?

The Dutch programme is actually the continuation and the acceleration of a transition that started over the last 10 years with energy from waste solutions, especially from biomass (organic residue and matter), support for sustainable initiatives taken by the civil society, companies or NGOs in the shape of “Green Deals” (2) for the transport sector, biodiversity or the economy…

All over the country the movement appears to have gathered pace. In 2014, more than 80% of cardboard and 90% of metals were already recycled. Initiatives are springing. The jeans made by the famous Dutch brand G-Star Raw have been produced from recycled materials since 2007. One of the country’s economic heavyweights, Philips, has tested the idea of selling its light bulb depending on the electricity they consume. Several waste treatment operators have joined the 100-100-100 project, a specific incentive programme to reduce the waste produced by 100 households by 100% in 100 days. City centres are teeming with Repair Centres, where citizens can find all the solutions they need to repair common consumer goods, and that incite industrial manufacturers to produce easily repairable objects. A total of 800,000 jobs are already linked to the circular economy, representing 8% of the country’s working population.

But it will not be an easy task. In the government’s own words, a “change in the economic structure” will be necessary. By ripping it all up and starting again ? Not really. It is more a matter of making the most of the existing linear production capacities, while limiting their negative external effects by inciting industrial manufacturers to share their equipment and their skills or by adopting cleaner and more sober processes, in terms of water for example. It is also a matter of encouraging the creation of “co-” (3) oriented businesses along the lines of car-sharing.

Are cities a pillar of a national circular economy?

Activating the levers for the country to successfully transform itself appears to be more feasible on the scale of a town or city, where different circular initiatives can network and where the necessary cooperation between the players can take place. Some city authorities sometimes even take charge of certain initiatives launched on a national scale.

Thus, a City Deal was signed in 2016 with eight cities, including Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam, to use green electricity for all the city’s trams, subways and public lighting. Some of these cities also plan to launch local pilot projects. For example, the town of Haarlemmermeer plans to become a pioneer in construction by only using eco-designed constructions and materials. The public authorities hope to make this effort last by capitalising on the inventive creativity of companies, NGOs and local citizens. Living labs and open innovation labs are developing and testing the solutions and the knowledge that will form the new pillars of value creation in the future.

New Rotterdam-Centraal Station gare inaugurated in 2014  © Frans Berkelaar

A circular country in a linear world?

But what is the point of a circular model in just one country? Faced with the global dimension of this massive challenge, the Netherlands is advocating genuine international cooperation in the field. They also plan to create a program to share Dutch know-how abroad with companies and States that want to make the change.

But there are still obstacles in the way. The Netherlands alone does not think it has enough diplomatic clout to persuade its trading partners to, for example, change the standards applying to the production of goods and to impose eco-designed goods. But the Netherlands wants to set the example and hope that it will snowball. Successfully? Let’s meet in 2050.

(1) A theoretical calculation taking account of circularisation measures, such as the creation of a complete waste recovery sector and the deployment of circular principles in industries such as iron and steel and the production of electricity.
(2) An innovative public policy model from the Netherlands that could speed up the transition towards the circular economy.
(3) The prefix of the three concepts behind the sharing economy: collaboration, cooperation and collective.

This article was published in the fourth issue of open_resource magazine: “The circular economy era

Usbek & Rica is a French publication available in digital, print and event-based formats. Its mission is to “explore the near, distant and very long-term future”, enthusiastically and optimistically. open_resource magazine invited it to indulge in this forward-looking exercise.


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