EUKN interview with Mr Christiaan Norde

2 March 2015

The concept of zero waste is gaining momentum. Despite the circular economy package being dropped by the European Commission in favour of a more ambitious plan, the Netherlands is deciding to move forward with this environmental and economic proposal. The EUKN interviewed Christiaan Norde from Platform31, the Netherlands’ EUKN knowledge partner - National Focal Point (NFP) – to better understand how and why the circular economy is to be applied.


EUKN: The circular economy will be the topic of the forthcoming policy lab organised by the Netherlands, how would you define the circular economy?

CN: We are supporting and using the definition put forward by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It is one of the most accepted definitions of the circular economy and we will use it as the basis for our policy lab. The circular economy refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimises, tracks, and hopefully eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design. The term goes beyond the mechanics of production and consumption of goods and services, in the areas that it seeks to redefine (examples include rebuilding capital including social and natural, and the shift from consumer to user). The concept of the circular economy is grounded in the study of non-linear, particularly living systems. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, based in the UK, is really the frontrunner institute on the concept of the Circular Economy and their definition is accepted worldwide.


EUKN: Besides environmental and economic aspects, can the circular model impact other dimensions of our societies?

CN: Basically I think it will touch on all aspects, because it will change the whole way of thinking. We are now looking at linear economies, where we produce things, we use them and then we most likely have waste, even if we continue to improve on recycling. I think that if we are to look at social aspects, the whole awareness of how people ‘consume’ products and services will have to change into how they ‘use’ products and services. This has an impact on each and every person in relation to how you approach food and the products that you use for example. The same goes for companies. They have to re-think the way they use materials and do their business. Looking at environmental aspects, the circular economy principles can be applied to small elements. For example, materials, which are used for construction, can be made more re-usable and eco-friendly. From here the next step would be the organisation of circular neighbourhoods and cities, where products are locally grown as much as possible or have limited waste both in production and in the end result of their consumption. This can go even further if you look at transportation. We are used to commuting a lot and we need the infrastructure and the power to do it. This has an impact on the environment as well. If we can be more aware of that, we can change the relationship between work and our home, which could have an impact on the urban environment as well.


EUKN: What are the main elements of the current economic system that need to be changed in order to move towards a circular economy?

CN: A lot of things are already being done. Looking at how we handle waste, I think businesses and individuals have already developed a lot of different concepts that explain how the circular economy works and the benefits it has. An example in existence now for many years is the cradle-to-cradle principle whereby recycling is part of the production cycle. In order to make use of all the initiatives that are already available, there is an important role for governments to actually make those changes possible and push the changes into the right directions, by taking away barriers in terms of legislation or perhaps supporting initiatives that enable the growth of circular economy concepts, products and ideas that are already around. Governments can steer the initiatives into the right direction, which are usually coming from local or municipal levels. Lack of awareness of the circular economy principles from the side of citizens is a barrier that can be tackled. It is important to grasp the concept of cost per use instead of the cost per production of goods and services.

There is an important task for national and perhaps European governments to support initiatives related to the circular economy. Some examples of circular government policy are: 

  • Understanding the concept;

  • Leading by example;

  • Assessing the local context on the basis of the circular economy principles, to create a comprehensive vision or strategy;

  • Starting a dialogue with all stakeholders involved;

  • Monitoring and evaluating progress and looking to up-scale possibilities.


EUKN: Do you see a role for education institutions in creating this awareness on the circular economy?

CN: Definitely, what we have seen for example is that the Ellen McArthur Foundation wants to show not only that we have to look and care about the environment and we can do it through the circular economy, but that there is also a business model connected to that. It creates jobs as well, and has many more positive impacts. There is a big role for education in showing and teaching children to understand the concept. 


EUKN: Can this complete change of production and consumption systems advocated by the circular economy happen in the short-term or is it really a long-term process? If so, is there a possibility to speed it up?

CN: It is definitely a long-term process, because you have to deal with the change of awareness and the whole concept has to sink in with absolutely everyone. This also explains the importance of education. As with any change there is no clear beginning or clear end of achievement. It is a process that will go on and on. You have to take incremental steps. When there is a viable business model, the companies will use it. In this sense it helps to speed the process if governments help to make that possible and to support initiatives already active. Technical development can also have an effect on it.


EUKN: The circular economy has been recently at the centre of the debate at EU level: have EU countries been taking concrete steps towards the achievement of this goal?

CN: We found out that the circular economy is a very broad theme. There isn't a specific law or bill that addresses the circular economy. You do see, especially with regards to waste management, that a number of European countries have taken initiatives. For example, Denmark has forbidden the development of any new landfill site, in Germany the principle that whoever creates waste also has to pay for it has been adopted. At this moment waste management is always done by governments, you see more and more in multiple European countries that this concept is used. It becomes part of a new business model: for the whole lifecycle of an object, waste will become an integral part of it, instead of having governments responsible for it as a universal service for all citizens. Basically, if a product has added waste that needs to be handled, it will become more expensive, making it less attractive for users. Many examples are linked to waste management. In this sense there is a circular economy package from the European Commission that is going to be completely reviewed following criticism on the fact that it is mainly focusing on waste reduction\management and not on the whole changes that need to be done. In this sense the circular economy is still in its early stages. There are not a lot of examples yet where there are concrete policies or laws that really support complete new product design methodologies.


EUKN: How can the circular economy principles be scaled at city level? Is it possible to have circular cities or circular neighbourhoods?

CN: I think you have to start with small elements. If you would ask to buy a house now that completely fits in the circular economy model, then probably the answer would be no. However, looking at all the segments that make up a house it would be possible to see which steps you could take. This comes from the fact that there are a lot of initiatives, thoughts, ideas and innovations already on specific elements, whether they are production materials, or procedures that can already be implemented. The summary would be that national and European legislations should be focusing on supporting and assisting circular economy concepts from the bottom up. So the best and first examples of circular economy will be found at the local level. At the moment a lot of research is being done to collect best practices in order to upscale them within a city or within a country. The principles are there locally and need to be scaled up. Governments should lead by example in terms of tender procedures, buying only goods and services, which answer to the questions related to the circular economy principles. Some people might say that the standard needs to be set at a national or even European level in order to pull businesses out of the linear economy.

For products and services you see that local grown and produced products are getting increasingly popular. With globalisation you will never achieve a 100% local economy anymore but the shift is definitely possible.


EUKN: Can you give some specific examples of urban communities moving in this direction?

CN: An example would be housing companies that want to apply the cradle-to-cradle principles in the renovation of an old residential neighbourhood. Including this principle in a tender, a community or a municipality can already state its importance.

Cities or communities have to set targets themselves and make use of any legislation that could support them in these circular economy initiatives. Some interesting and already well-known examples of cost per use is the emergence of the sharing economy. Amsterdam Sharing City or Seoul Sharing City might be good examples. Elements of the sharing economy fit into the circular economy concept well: it is about more efficient use of resources, with a stronger focus on usage, for example of cars or houses, rather than on ownership. We had an interesting example in our EUKN Annual Conference: a community that noted that every day the maintenance of green areas was done by a company located 60kms away. They thought it was nonsense that somebody drove all the way from the other side of the province and decided to take ownership of the maintenance of the green areas and do it locally. Such an initiative is efficient, more economical and creates social cohesion in a neighbourhood. The circular economy is composed of a number of different concepts. You can zoom into any aspect of the cycle of a product and see which elements can be improved. That's why there is an unlimited number of good examples which tackle just a single element of the whole cycle. The aim of this policy lab is to combine all these different elements by gathering the different ministries, which are responsible for their specific domain. You need to have a holistic or integrated approach when dealing with the circular economy. You need to have all stakeholders involved as you cannot view it from a sectorial point of view anymore. It is a complex task, but definitely needed and rewarding at the same time as well.