The Circular Economy is spiralling its way upwards

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Paper bin with money

On Thursday, 8 May I found myself in Pakhuis De Zwijger in Amsterdam attending the Circular Economy Boostcamp. The Boostcamp is an annual co-creation event organised by Circle Economy in partnership with the green think tank Groene Brein, the sustainable business organisation De Groene Zaak, CSR Netherlands and around 200 activists and experts. All the participants spent several days working on concrete circular goals.

A circular economy, unlike our present linear economy, ensures that commodities and raw materials are given a second life. Jan Raes Jan Raes Sustainability advisor

A circular goal might for example be an intelligent solution for reusing discarded hardware and surplus food in the city. The focus during the Circular Economy Boostcamp was specifically on the objectives of the City of Amsterdam to find new uses for contaminated industrial sites and to create circular residential and working areas. The Boostcamp gives circular pioneers a podium where they can put their plans into sharper focus and move them forward.

You only need to look in the drawer to see that we don’t yet have a circular economy

Everyone’s got one: a drawer full of old mobile phones, or a corner with discarded tablets and computers. What was once the newest of the new, with a high price tag, has turned into nothing more than electronic waste that has virtually no value. Collection campaigns are a temporary solution to addressing and recycling the existing electronic waste mountain, and we also expect designers to come up with new, more intelligent solutions to this problem. In the meantime, however, we continue to replace our hardware annually – a clear indication that the circular economy is not yet operating as it could. There isn’t an endless supply of raw materials, and it’s time that drawer was cleared out. So what are we to do with all that waste?

A second life for waste

The Netherlands produces around 60 million kg of waste every year. Just over 50% of that waste goes through segregated collection. Our waste consists mainly of raw materials that could have a future. They are raw materials that are badly needed for use in everyday applications such as laptops, washing machines, mobile phones, wind turbines, and much more besides. Today, our economy is still primarily linear: we extract raw materials from the earth, use them to make products and after being used once they become waste. A circular rather than linear economy ensures that raw materials are given a second life. New services emerge which repair, refurbish and maintain discarded products, give them a second life, sell them second-hand or recycle them. Our surplus food does not have to be thrown away as waste if we break it down organically into raw materials that can be put to use in the natural environment.

Where is circular thinking flourishing?

More and more examples have emerged in recent years of people finding different approaches to raw materials and waste. The carpet supplier Interface Carpets, led by Ray Anderson, began compiling an inventory of its raw material needs in 1990. In the years that followed, the company began systematically using recycling to meet all those needs. The result is a financially healthy company turning over billions based on reusing raw materials. Another example is the classic ‘Cradle to Cradle' founded by the biochemical scientist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough in 2002 to design products and homes that can be dismantled into useful components for reuse. Blue Economy, the brainchild of Gunter Pauli, came to the fore strongly in 2010. The activities of this company include planting elephant grass on waste land to produce a recyclable raw material for use in photocopier paper, spectacles, packaging and energy applications. Imitating natural processes is a guiding principle for these companies: after all, nature uses its own waste. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation¬†also once again brought the importance of the circular economy to the notice of world leaders at the 2014 World Economic Forum. With these pioneers as an inspiration, the world appears to be making good progress towards a circular economy.

Bigger and smaller players join forces to complete the circle

Over the next few years, ABN AMRO will partner CSR Netherlands and Social Enterprise NL in a dialogue about this new economy. The transition to a circular economy is a precondition for a sustainable future. Circular thinking avoids products and food ending up too soon as useless waste. New companies are emerging which specialise in the collection, repair, maintenance and second-hand sale of discarded products. Bigger and smaller players come together via the networks of CSR Netherlands, Social Enterprise NL and the bank itself. Our clients are becoming increasingly aware regarding the recycling of raw materials for reuse. This growing awareness provides a good starting position to enable the Netherlands to become an international leader in the field. As the footballer Johan Cruijff might have said to businesses and consumers who don’t yet believe it: “You’ll only see it once you get it!"

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