#7: Salomé Galjaard on... Amsterdam's Circular City Policy

What is the foundation of the circular economy to you?

At the heart of the circular economy lies the notion that we tend not to value a lot of the things that are, in fact, of great value. Whether it’s placing a value on materials that we currently call waste, or valuing taking care of your elderly mother, we need to rethink how we value everyday material and immaterial resources. As long as we don't value these things, they don't really “count” within the economy – and that’s where we’re going wrong. In that sense, I'm happy that our circular strategy links to the doughnut economy, because that has really helped us to consider the social aspect of circularity. It's a little bit too easy to get boxed into only thinking about the physical materials and not throwing anything away. But if you don't bring in the social aspect, there's really no point.

I find the topic of “true pricing” extremely interesting in this context. It makes us ask questions like, what is the value of fresh, clean air? What is the price of physical interaction or close contact with your friends? Or access to outdoor, green spaces? We don't always value these things within the traditional economy, but they’re so valuable.

During these crisis/lockdown times, we have started to value what we have a lot more, I think. It just shows: if you think about the issue differently - and break down silos as well – you can “do a lot more with less”.

The strategy runs from 2020 – 2025, what initial steps are happening at the moment to get it started?

We have a broad innovation and execution programme already happening, with over 200  “projects” going on across different municipal departments and organisations in and around the city. We are also targetting different geographical scales to achieve our circular goals. We are looking at where and how the three value chains – food and organic waste, consumer goods, and the built environment - are interrelated in the city and using the instruments we have in the Municipality to make different areas more circular. For example, if you look at the Amsterdam harbour, you can work on organic waste, but also products and buildings. You get three for the price of one, so to speak.

What is really great about both the strategy and the program is that it's a real collaboration between all the departments in the city and our external partners. The process of getting to the strategy was actually even more important than the final document because it involved the whole Municipality. All the different departments and external urban stakeholders are now implementing actions. This is a strong starting point because it really lays the basis to make circularity “the new normal”.

We will also be monitoring everyone’s activities closely to see how we are progressing. The execution programme is only for two years so that we can review how everything is going mid-way through. We're aiming to achieve our ambitions by 2025, and to do this, we need to be able to adapt quickly and accelerate or alter some plans as we go along.

What kind of national and EU level policies do you think this strategy needs to be implemented fully or even scaled up?

You cannot become totally circular as a city on your own. So we're closely collaborating with different levels of government - other municipalities and provinces within the metropolitan region, the other cities in the G5 (the biggest cities in the Netherlands), and the European Union, which recently launched its Circular Economy Action Plan as part of the Green Deal. When it comes to policy, we lobby for a shift in taxation - taxing labour less and taxing primary goods and energy more. Even changing policies around this a little bit could result in a massive shift in mindset regarding what kind of economic activity is seen as attractive and valuable to society.

If national and international policy could move in the same direction as us, that would be beneficial. But, given that we cannot control that, there are still lots of things that we can do at the local level. We can repair a lot of things locally. We can choose how we deal with our "waste streams" - if we burn waste or if we reuse it, if we give it away or if we give it a value. 

One of the most important instruments local or national governments have is procurement - so we focus on doing this in a circular way. If we spend our money on goods that can be repaired, or on (vegetarian), locally-sourced lunches, it not only sends out a message but can also really affect the market as well.

We are also working on producer responsibility, asking: can we make sure that producers feel responsible for what they produce and what they sell? If you buy a new washing machine, for example, the seller is required to take back your old one and make sure it's processed sustainably. This should be the case with other products too. There are many things happening in this area: you've got the plastic pact, there is talk about the right to repair at the EU-level, and so on. We’re really pushing for a world where all products sold are repairable. 

Where does the policy fit into the debate around globalisation and supply chains, catalysed by the COVID-19 crisis?

The current crisis is highlighting just how dependent and sensitive global supply chains are and where the weakest links lie. Globalisation has a lot of value but we have to be very aware of what makes the most sense – socially, economically and environmentally. It's weird to both import and export potatoes. There's no point in that. But we can't produce everything we need in the Netherlands either. So we need “smart globalisation”.

In terms of the COVID-19 response and where the circular strategy fits into it: the Municipality is working on creating as many sustainable jobs as we can, as quickly as we can, for all the people that are losing their jobs at the moment. But we still don't know how many job losses there will be as we move into 2021 - we don't know what the economy will do. Will it bounce back? Will it improve slowly? Or will we have a massive recession? It's difficult to predict.

Has anything about the strategy changed because of COVID-19?

The strategy document hasn’t changed, but some of the activities that we were planning to do were put on hold during the first lockdown. On the other hand, we’ve also had a couple of really fantastic new projects as a result of the pandemic. One involved giving thousands of refurbished laptops to children, the elderly, and people with very low incomes to make sure that everyone in the city could be digitally connected. We also worked with farmers and the Rabobank to channel surplus food from the fields (that was no longer being exported because of the collapse of some international supply chains) to local people in need.

I find it really important that we don’t just implement these initiatives during extreme situations. Instead, we should try to learn from what's happened and accelerate the plans that we already had in place. We’re in a terrible situation but it's also presenting us with an opportunity. There’s a Dutch expression that fits perfectly here: “under pressure, everything becomes fluid”. In other words, you start to see the world with fresh eyes during crises and the system’s weaknesses – and possible solutions - become clearer.

On a personal level, what have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis?

It’s been a nice affirmation that everything you really need is nearby (here in Amsterdam, at least). This crisis has shown that me that my neighbourhood - or even just my street – is already this super complex rich ecosystem. If everyone realizes how valuable that is, it could be a great basis for the transition to a circular economy. The crisis has also shown us that we can step out of our traditional linear thinking, our fast-paced lives, and our flying around the world, and appreciate the little things - or the things that we didn't value before. In this sense, it could help people to realise that going circular might not be so painful - that it could even be enjoyable and make our lives richer (in a non-economic sense). 

This crisis is terrible in many ways but we're all in it together, which on a global scale is quite remarkable. We understand each other, and our international chains and interconnections are more obvious than ever. I'm hoping that this will make it easier for us collaborate on topics such as sustainability and circularity.