A world without waste. That’s what a circular economy is all about. We are used to giving books and clothing a second life, but there is a growing realization that we can also reuse things and save raw materials in other areas as well. Manon Eikelenboom of the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân investigates such possibilities for social housing, from curtains to building shells.
The stimulus behind Eikelenboom’s research was in fact an issue raised by housing corporation Elkien. ‘They wanted to do more with the circular economy concept. Circular construction can involve, for example, modular houses with components that can be dismantled and reused, or the reuse of window frames or demolition material,’ explains Eikelenboom. Gradually, however, she realized that housing corporations can also play a major role in the social domain.
‘People who live in social housing are often rather vulnerable and have only a modest income’, says Eikelenboom. ‘So I decided to explore what housing associations might be able to do for them. And how can you make sure that people see sustainability and circularity as something positive? So now I’m looking at how you can construct sustainably at neighbourhood level and how you can incorporate the concept of sustainability into people's lives.’
There are already plenty of second-hand stores, right? Bicycles, furniture, clothing – it all ends up with new owners. ‘Yes, a lot is already being done. But it’s not just about the circulation of stuff. It’s also about social cohesion, bringing things and people together. Housing associations can be instrumental in stimulating activities in neighbourhoods.’ Eikelenboom cites the example of two women with a penchant for flower arranging, who often spent time at the Oud-Oost neighbourhood centre. The centre contacted a local flower shop and asked them to give their leftover flowers to the women so that they could use them to make arrangements. ‘That’s how they ended up decorating the Cambuur stadium with flowers. How amazing is that?! Housing associations can help to get initiatives like that off the ground.’
Eikelenboom will soon start working on what she calls ‘action research’: what can we improve in a neighbourhood by working closely with residents and the organizations that are already active in the area. ‘In one particular district in Leeuwarden, for example, you see hardly any curtains in the windows; the residents use sheets and rubbish bags. On the other hand, a lot of people leave that neighbourhood and end up throwing away their curtains. Housing associations can bring supply and demand together there.’
Are the concepts of sustainability and circular economy actually compatible with social housing? In some circles, sustainability is often seen as a hobby for people who have fatter wallets. ‘You shouldn’t impose things on people, but rather show them what they can get out of it. A lot of people are already acting sustainably, without even realising it – although their motivation may be different. It doesn’t matter whether you do it to save money or out of idealism. If you see it as a means, rather than an end, it becomes easier. The ultimate goal is to improve everyone’s wellbeing.’
The University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân wants to use its research to find solutions for social issues, preferably in collaboration with the local community. Eikelenboom is an excellent example of this. ‘Without that connection with society I wouldn’t want to do this. And I can sense that I’m working on something really special. The Netherlands is actually the only country in the world that has associations for social housing. We have the chance to show everyone something great.’
Manon Eikelenboom is a PhD student at the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân and her research focuses on a circular economy in the social housing sector.
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