Being one of the earliest to implement circularity, the Dutch are also among the first to confront its practical challenges
If you were asked to think about the global hotspots for the circular economy, the tech start-up hubs of the US’ east and west coasts may spring to mind. Yet the Netherlands, better known for tulips and canals, boasts perhaps the world’s densest cluster of green startups today.
A Dutch circular startup finds itself in quite a different ecosystem to that generally found around the US. In cities across the Netherlands, highly organized pilot schemes linking companies, academia, charities, and local governments function as living labs for the circular push. This means that Holland is not just witnessing a lot of private-sector innovation – it is also experimenting in how to embed circular products and services into the life and running of local economies.
The green city
Contributing 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, the way we design and live in our cities demand radical overhaul within the next decade or less. Circular modes of resource use – repairing, reusing, repurposing, and upcycling – is certainly part of the solution.
Many countries have recognized the urgency of the task. Municipal governments around the world already setting sustainability targets and rolling out pilots in circular services and governance. However, few have concretely implemented them as extensively and energetically as in the Netherlands today.
Some of this is down to a long emphasis by the central government on circularity. Where other countries may issue directives on sustainability in general, the Dutch government has devoted focus to the circular economy, the bioeconomy, and their intersections. Right now, the Dutch cabinet intends to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050.
The Hague began to go circular in 2014, a year even before the EU’s landmark Circular Economy Action Plan was released. What distinguishes the schemes here, as in other urban centres around the Netherlands, is that local authorities, charities, and businesses are working together to meet overarching national targets on circularity.
While many private-public partnerships in circularity around the world focus on developing private sector capacity, hoping this will filter through to wider adoption, the Dutch modus operandi is to roll-out circular schemes in concert with communities, business and NGOs. The aim is to plan and implement circularity first, then use these pilot experiences to co-develop policy for urban governance.
One €10,000 scheme that ran between August and October 2021 was a pilot that fused two existing digital apps in secondhand goods trading. It partnered with seven secondhand goods stores around the city. One app collects publicly available data on secondhand goods supply and the second dispenses rewards for citizens who bring goods to one of the participating stores.
The pilot programme collected mountains of useable data for further iterations of the project. For example, it found that around 13 million in the Hague buy at secondhand stores, a growth of 4 percent on the previous year, and that 105, 000 tons of C02 savings were made per year thanks to goods deposited and sold. The seven shops that participated collectively brought in around 140 million kg of resources.
Another scheme that ran September to December 2021 aimed at figuring at how to link up unused household goods around the city to social entrepreneurs capable of upcycling them.
Here, the municipality formed an institutional bridge to facilitate material transfers between individuals and the private sector. The trial aimed to figure out the best logistical procedure for collecting secondhand goods. A total of 70 households participated and the project brought in over 1000 goods to upcycling startups.
Data collected from the project will be used to tighten up the circular supply chain in the city. The next stage will be another trial that looks in more detail at the categories of secondhand products being circulated on the app. The project is also looking at ways to deliver sub-streams managed by the second hand stores to upcycling initiatives around the city.
Made In Moerwijk: Leading the circular micro-economy
One project partner on the secondhand goods collection scheme was Made in Moerwijk, a flagship Hague circular initiative. It is involved in setting up many other projects, including helping circular businesses scale up and network.
Made in Moerwijk strives to keep used material flows within the boundaries of the Moerwijk district, collecting and utilizing any potentially valuable waste – from bike parts to clothing – within local value chains. This is a deliberate and conscious attempt to build up a district-centered microeconomy that runs entirely on secondary inputs.
One business that belongs to this social circular initiative is a 43-employee business called Middin. Using traditional hand worked looms, it weaves collected plastic and raffia waste into artisanal textiles and finished products like pencil cases and make up bags. Mosaico also supplies Made in Moerwjik with these rolls of textile for making waste collection bags.
By linking district residents to work on local goals, the scheme highlights another valuable lesson from the Dutch experience: the circular economy is not just about transactional relationships but also cultivating civic ones.
The sharing economy
One major aspect of the Hague circular project is the sharing economy, captured under what the local government there calls the “urban circular collaborative economy”. Although sometimes sidelined in circular conversations, which tend to focus on methods of valorising waste by diverting recycled material inputs to industry, sharing resources between citizens is a relative under-valued and low cost way to maximize resource use.
Navarro Oviedo, an expert on the circular economy, calls this human aspect the ‘software’, in contrast to resource management and waste legislation the ‘hardware’ of the circular economy: “In our old economic thinking, we define success by profit, whereas in the UCCE success is also measured by social and environmental return on investment.”
This kind of thinking is a hallmark of Hague circular pilots. It acknowledges a circular economy must work for the contexts and communities that they are implemented in, serving people as citizens and not just as consumers. If the way that industry manages resources is to change drastically, there must be equal shifts in the way that citizens relate to each other.
A distinguishing thread in Dutch circular policy is recognising the importance of behavioral and cultural change to the green transition. One way the Hague has tried to encourage circular-centered civic participation was a €15,000 scheme between 2021-2022 offering residents in a deprived neighborhood workshops on household re-use and repair.
The social tensions of going circular
Although the main purpose of the Hague’s circular project is to demonstrate feasibility, this practical bent is supplemented by research into the sociological and ethical dimensions of circular schemes. Academic research projects are drawing on data from urban living labs to tease out the qualitative and normative dimensions of the sustainable transition.
One Hauge scheme that has attracted attention from the research community is the Binckhorst housing project. In this post-industrial harbour site close to the city centre, the local government plan to create a circular residential and business neighborhood that is 50% circular by 2050.
The area is a potential treasure trove of circular inputs. Analysis in 2016 found that the Binckhorst area collectively produced around 22,950 tonnes of waste including 910 tonnes of organic waste, 540 tonnes of plastic, and 1300 of iron per year.
As Binckhorst is redeveloped, the site is being investigated by researchers at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability along four themes: governance, the closing of cycles, business models, and citizen participation and community development.
Teun Verhagen, a PhD researcher at TU Delft, is finding in his research that implementing circular policies in even a limited area as Binckhorst has knock-on effects in the surrounding regions. Circular projects necessitate decisions about where certain services will be located: should waste disposal companies be located on-site to minimize transport emissions or would this mar the living environment?
There are other tensions to navigate. Some social researchers are finding that existing social and circular entrepreneurs and NGOs in the Binckhorst area fear being pushed out as the development project raises the area’s real estate value. One of the biggest challenges in turning Binckhorst circular will be the social impact of circular re-development projects. The site has unique potential to yield insights into how green urban investment can enhance rather than diminish access and equality.
The Hague offers a blueprint for urban centers intent on making the green transition. However, its initiatives are throwing up some of the universal tensions involved in such development projects, particularly those that must be rolled out rapidly.
Right now, Binckhorst is dominated by services, construction, whole and retail, including automotive industries. The success of the project will ultimately come down to whether it can include and support diverse occupational and social groups within its visions of a circular future.
Implementing circular measures on a city-wide scale needs the active support of the inhabitants. This raises a wider problem in the green transition movement: how to formulate and deliver visions of the future that will pay out – not just for those at the cutting edge of climate tech but the majority still reliant on legacy industries.