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Working towards a closed cycle

Frans J. Sijtsma on the circular economy
20 June 2023

We are living in a throw-away society. Raw materials are made into goods, which are thrown away en masse when they are no longer needed. This linear economic system is putting immense pressure on the environment and the climate, with very worrying consequences. The two billion tons of waste we produce every year is slowly but surely turning our planet into a one big landfill site. At the same time, the plastic soup in our oceans is assuming alarming proportions, the climate is suffering under increasing emissions of CO2 and methane, and pollution and nitrogen in the soil and groundwater are eating away at biodiversity. In addition, important natural resources are running out.

By: Marco in ’t Veldt / Photos: Reyer Boxem

‘A lot of companies want to change. Very much so. But how?’
‘A lot of companies want to change. Very much so. But how?’

We are becoming increasingly aware that things have to change. The transition to a circular economy has become unavoidable. The Netherlands wants to be 50% circular by 2030, and fully circular by 2050. ‘A lot of companies want to change. Very much so. But how? That’s the focus of our research,’ explains Dr Frans J. Sijtsma. He is an economic geographer and director of the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development at the University of Groningen (UG). Along with a team of 13 experts from the UG, he is studying the status of circularity from the corporate perspective (see text box).

How did this research come about?

The UG is one of the partners in Noord-Nederland Verdient Circulair (The Northern Netherlands Deserves Circular). This consortium was set up with funding from the Northern Netherlands Provinces Alliance (SNN) to speed up the transition to a circular economy in the Northern Netherlands. The partners want to improve the innovation ecosystem, promote knowledge, and support companies in implementing circular business and revenue models. The UG is due to publish the first report with recommendations shortly. As director of Agricola, I consider it important that this group of experts stays together as part of a broad-based interdisciplinary research group within the Rudolf Agricola School. So it’s not just a one-off; our research with northern partners is set to continue in the years to come.

Where are things going wrong?

Let me start with the basic attitude. That’s fine. A lot of companies are keen to change. This is an important observation. We’ve been in touch with around 400 companies and their basic attitude is generally positive. On the one hand they realize that the current system isn’t sustainable, and on the other hand they know that new regulations are in the pipeline at every level: regional, national, and European. However, we also realize that change won’t be easy. So our research is looking into the organizational ecosystem. Until now, it has mainly focused on helping individual companies; ‘Come on, go circular!’ In our role as the UG, we think that the economic system should be considered in its entirety. Companies tell us where our system throws up problems and obstacles to becoming circular. We make recommendations to remove them. Let me give you an example: steel can easily be recycled, but anyone who wants to do that runs into difficulties getting certification. They are often unsuccessful. But in turn, customers need these certificates to guarantee the quality of the steel to their customers. So we need to come up with a solution, or the whole recycling concept will fail. And this is just one of countless obstacles facing companies.

How can you tackle these obstacles?

This is why we make recommendations. It all starts with listening. Take a cardboard factory, for example. They say: ‘I make a product that’s easy to recycle, but I don’t know if customers actually do that.’ Or a contractor in the infrastructure who says: ‘I’ve got lots of recyclable products, but customers either aren’t allowed to use them, or aren’t willing to pay the extra costs.’ We’ve got so many concrete examples that we can work with. We’ve found five barriers. There aren’t any circular alternatives available. They still need to be developed, and that can take years. Or there are circular alternatives, but they’re too expensive. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge. Companies simply don’t know that there are alternatives. Quality and dismantling materials are often given as obstacles to the transition to a circularity because used and recycled materials don’t always meet the prevailing quality standards. And then there’s the legislation and regulations. Unclear, incomplete government regulations are cited as another obstacle. Companies need clear, well-aligned regulations, although opinions on the role of encouragement versus prohibition differ.

So quite a lot can be still be done to promote the circular economy?

Absolutely. We are suggesting setting up an independent group for the north to keep gathering examples of this kind, and to keep ‘listening’ to companies as a means of breaking down barriers to circularity. We call them Quintuple Helix Circular Economy Groups (QCE groups), as it involves five types of organizations: government, knowledge institutions, industry, society, and nature and environmental organizations. The groups focus on removing obstacles. QCE groups are a vital addition to the existing ecosystem of organizations. The QCE groups can help to remove impediments to the circular economy. They can increase demand for circular materials, products, and services. They can develop financial incentives to promote circularity and play a role in coordinating the regulations and frameworks governing the circular economy. But it’s also about: which resources do we deploy in the Northern Netherlands, and where? This could involve an incentive fund, for example, or levies, or the government acting as a launching customer to guarantee a certain sales target for an initiative. You’ll sometimes have to form chains, and sometimes you’ll have to break them. The aim is to create a fast-learning, facilitating ecosystem for the circular economy in the Northern Netherlands.

‘Ambitious? We’re top of the bill here in the Northern Netherlands!’
‘Ambitious? We’re top of the bill here in the Northern Netherlands!’

Isn’t that a bit too ambitious for the Northern Netherlands?

Ambitious? We’re top of the bill here in the Northern Netherlands! We have top-quality companies! We have an excellent knowledge system and intelligent NGOs. If we can’t do it, who can? Obviously, the Northern Netherlands can’t do everything on its own, but there’s definitely enough power to arrange things: regionally, as well as nationally and internationally. And you have to make smart choices: which matters should we tackle as a region? And of course we have to be realistic: we know that you can’t make everything circular. So our suggestion is to develop new compensation mechanisms for cases where circularity simply isn’t feasible. The details require further exploration and research.

Partners in the research

The following people worked on the research project ‘Sneller naar een circulaire economie. Luisteren naar de ervaringen van pionier- en sleutelbedrijven om gezamenlijk de weg vrij te maken voor een versnelde circulaire systeemtransitie’[Moving faster towards a circular economy. Listening to the experiences of pioneer and key companies to jointly pave the way for an accelerated circular system transition']: Dr Frans Sijtsma (Spatial Sciences), Oscar Kamminga MSc (Spatial Sciences), Dr Thijs Broekhuizen (FEB), Dr Niels Faber (CF), Prof. David Langley (FEB), Dr Sanderine Nonhebel (FSE), Julia Koch MSc (PBL/Behavioural and Social Sciences), Reint van Klinken MSc (Spatial Sciences/FSE), and Dr Ellen van der Werff (Behavioural and Social Sciences). The following people worked on the pilot study of compensation: Dr Frans Sijtsma (Spatial Sciences), Reint van Klinken MSc (Spatial Sciences/FSE), Dr Sanderine Nonhebel (FSE), Prof. Bart Los (FEB), René Benders (FSE), and Prof Klaus Hubacek (FSE).

Last modified:20 June 2023 11.16 a.m.
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