The routes to a Circular society

After a morning with parallel sessions exploring the four pillars (biosphere, society, economy and partnerships) the afternoon of day three was all about the routes toward a biobased circular society. In the absence of Imke de Boer, Martin van Ittersum professor of Plant Production Systems, shared his vision with the biosphere as the starting point.

The transition to a biobased and circular society should be formed according to five principles, he said: “First, we have to protect the health of ecosystems. This means moving away from monocultures and choosing biodiversity at all levels. It also requires diversification and preservation, so no more deforestation. The second principle is preventing overconsumption in order to reduce food waste and losses. Thirdly, we must use biomass and production systems as efficiently as possible: for human consumption. Fourthly, coproducers should recycle and return to the system. Some biomass flows can then be used for animal feed, artificial fertiliser and other materials. At the same time, we need to preserve carbon in the soil and recycle phosphate from animal waste and human excrement. Lastly, we should make use of renewable energy and minimise energy consumption.”

Broader range of indicators required

Van Ittersum sees two questions that still need answering. One: how can we realise all this in time and scale? And two: how can data help us in this process? “Existing indicators such as the Use Cycle Count and the Finn Cycling Index are already being deployed, but we require a broader range of indicators to measure progress.”

Society and the need for a common purpose

Eveline van Leeuwen, professor in Urban Economics, is convinced that discussions on circular systems should revolve less around the economy and have more to do with society. “The transition to a circular society can only succeed with the support and cooperation of all social actors,” she stated in her talk on the social transition route to a circular society.

For the transition, Van Leeuwen says we should step away from the idea that economic growth will make everything better. She referred to the term ‘people, planet, profit’, which suggests that the economy is equally important as people and the planet we live on. “We should be seeing economy as an enabler, not a goal in itself.” Van Leeuwen also discussed how the circular society needs a common purpose: what society do we want to live in together? “This requires inclusive dialogues with civilians, consumers, companies, policymakers and scientists. To a certain extent, we need to agree on what kind of society we want.”

Amsterdam’s circular monitor

Achieving this requires insights into the current system and Van Leeuwen has developed a circular monitor for Amsterdam together with the AMS Institute. “The city council wishes to know which material flows are coming into the city, which remain and which leave again. The monitor showed, among other things, that 90% of the company waste is caused by a small group of companies. You need this type of data in order to actually make changes. We also need to know what works where: a better insight into the interactions between people and locations allows us to devise good interventions.”

The economy as enabler

Economy is the discipline that should enable the transition to a safe and fair circular society and should be subordinate to ecology and society, according to Hans van Meijl, economist at Wageningen Economic Research. But how? First, by valuing products at their true price, which includes social and environmental effects. By removing the division between economy and ecology in policy-making and making sustainable financing the standard. By switching to a new tax system with a fairer ratio between labour and capital. And by taking leave of fossil processes as soon as biobased alternatives can take their place.

Van Meijl said that the transition to a circular economy also means giving biobased and circular processes a place in economic models as the foundation for policy-making: “There is a demand for a new framework that also includes issues such as biodiversity from the start and takes all side-streams into account.”

Governance: focus on small wins

The route from linear to circular is an uncertain one and nobody knows the exact path. Katrien Termeer, professor in Public Administration and Policy, advocated starting small. “Small wins are always radical; trying to change the entire system at once will have a paralysing effect.” Plenty of ideas for small wins were expressed during the conference said Termeer, who saw many interesting innovations during the poster sessions presenting smart ideas for the circular economy. “Most solutions were technological in nature. Although these are also important, we need more than tech start-ups alone. We also need innovative governance, for instance. Or innovative civic initiatives such as Heerenboeren, a type of community farming.”

Policy interventions

What policy interventions does Termeer believe can accelerate and strengthen small wins? Generating partnerships, the network governance Jacqueline Cramer mentioned earlier in the conference. Moving away from fossil processes and stopping subsidies that do not support the circular economy. Embracing the Green Deal. Adopting coherent policies that don’t change every four years. And financing scientific research without pre-determined deliverables to make more room for innovation.