We must strive for a fully circular household by the year 2050, says Saskia Visser, programme director of the knowledge development programme “Towards a circular and climate-neutral society”. That calls for tough choices: do you want to travel by plane, eat meat or buy new clothing?
Can you describe a circular household of the year 2050?
‘We will eat far fewer animal products, and the food pyramid will be adjusted. Our food is locally sourced, which means we will no longer be able to eat strawberries throughout the year. Some products, such as coffee, will remain on the global market because they cannot be grown locally. Products in the supermarket will frequently be sold without packaging on a self-service basis. Plastics are biobased and degradable.
Cities have more high-rise buildings, and there is increased social cohesion. Residents may, for example, have a collective roof garden in which they grow crops. Houses are as climate-neutral as possible, and the construction materials are carefully considered. Concrete can be re-used but does not sequester CO2. We will have to use existing resources sparingly and consider alternatives to fossil-based products by, for example, using wood-based construction.
Zero-waste (and thus fully circular) is impossible, but many waste streams have become side-streams with a purpose. These are collected, and the residents are recompensed for recycling rather than paying for their waste. Rethinking is sorely needed.’
You propose that we must act now if we aim to achieve all this in the future. What can I do today to contribute?
‘One of the simplest and most effective things you can do is indicate you do not wish to receive promotional flyers anymore using a no-no sticker. This saves some 140 kilos of paper waste per year. I would prefer the reversed approach, where you would have to opt-in if you do want to receive mailings.
There are other simple things. Ensuring your tires have the correct pressure saves fuel. Do not use single-use plastics unless absolutely necessary. Research shows that recycling in the bathroom is the hardest. Most people probably have a separate bin in the bathroom that they discard with general waste. Shampoo bottles and toothpaste can easily be replaced with bars and tablets.
The most important question you should ask yourself is: do I really need this? Rather than buying new items all the time, you can pass things on. There are plenty of neighbourhood initiatives for swapping clothes and books. And it saves money.
What have you done to achieve circularity in your own household?
‘I buy some of my groceries in a packaging-free store. But not every day, as this is a logistical challenge. I have a fixed cycling route past the baker who grows his own wheat behind his bakery and the organic grocer’s. I buy the remainder of my groceries in the supermarket. I go to the Albert Heijn because this supermarket scores best in reducing packaging. Moreover, they stimulate customers to buy organic products through a subscription at a reduced rate. To cover shorter distances, I cycle, and I try to use as few single-use plastics as possible. I eat vegetarian, as does my family, at least three times per week.’
Can an individual really make a difference?
‘Every little step counts. Moreover, you can inspire others. When I share information about sustainable living and how happy that makes me with my friends, I see that they start to consider it and ask and offer tips. Sustainable living is not self-sacrifice. Life should still be fun. For example, we have a dog, and friends confront me about that fact. After all, a pet is not very sustainable. True. But pets bring so many positive things as well. It is up to each individual to make choices. If you enjoy vacations abroad by air travel, you should do so. But you must make choices, and this includes asking uncomfortable questions.
What kind of uncomfortable questions?
‘We tend to focus mainly on politicians and industry when it comes to sustainability. But we barely consider our own role. The realisation that not everything is possible is the most uncomfortable one. You must choose: do I want to travel by air, eat meat, or buy new clothes? All of the above is too much. The same applies to recycling: will you fill your house with recycling bins, buy package-free items, or pay for post-separation? Currently, it is often none of the above. But at least one of these options should be implemented. I think many people are simply not aware of the fact that they must make a choice.
Of course, support from the government and industry is helpful. Buying sustainable products is quite a challenge now, and only a few shops offer packaging-free products.’
Is truly circular really achievable?
‘It is. But we must carefully consider what the Netherlands should invest in. The government has earmarked billions of euros to buy out farmers. But what will the alternative be? Buying out farmers addresses the nitrogen surplus but is not necessarily a step toward sustainable agriculture. It may result in fewer cattle in the Netherlands, but we continue to import soy to feed the livestock. We must invest in alternatives. Systematic change is required if we are to achieve circularity. As far as I can see, this does not feature in the government policies.
View the documentary 'The circular household; How do we live inside our houses?'
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We have gathered abundant knowledge that contributes to a circular future, but there are too few incentives to act accordingly. The economy is driven by money, and there aren’t enough stimuli for businesses at present. If legislation changes are announced, companies will adapt. Moreover, the government can remove adverse incentives. For example, it is currently much cheaper to import soy from Brazil than to use local waste streams. Introducing import taxes could change that. And of course, it is complicated, as other effects must be taken into account. Suppose Brazil shifts its export to, say, China, where the environmental requirements are more lenient. In that case, this is even more detrimental to the environment on a global scale. The Netherlands is not an island. Still, it is something we must consider.’
What is the role of scientists in all this?
‘The technological possibilities are enormous. WUR is developing a plastic that is soluble in saltwater, for example, in case it ends up in the ocean by mistake. We also have excellent examples of Living Labs, where circular production is being tested at a local level. The question is, how can we scale up such initiatives? Not just in the Netherlands, but in Europe too.
I expect the role of science will change. Scientists no longer merely analyse and advise but form the connecting element in these transitions. Scientists can assume a neutral and mediating role among all the different parties and their various interests. We cannot continue to compromise. It is easier to bring the message that not everything is possible from a neutral position.’
What is the most essential in order to achieve this transition?
‘People’s behaviour is key. How does this translate into policy? Consider, for example, biomass plants designed to produce sustainable energy. This results in deforestation, while that was not the intent. It is human nature to try and gain an advantage. So, how can you stimulate that while still achieving the desired result?
Let’s connect with the younger generation and give them a voice. It was my daughter who convinced me to switch to a vegetarian diet. I think the younger generation has a different perspective on the issue. They must still inhabit the earth for a longer time, after all. We must create awareness among the young. Our society is focused on more, more, more. I think it is important to include in our upbringing the fact that you may have plenty of opportunities, but you can’t do everything at once.
We should perform a generation test when developing new policies. To check what the effect of the policy is not just for this political term, but also for future generations. Because those that are most impacted do not yet have a vote.’
(Lead image: Guy Ackermans)
At the Circular@WUR conference in April 2022, WUR will provide an overview of the latest knowledge about a circular, biobased society. Participants can experience the circular challenge in masterclasses and gain inspiration by visiting the most innovative circular companies in the Netherlands. Relevant, impactful keynote speakers give their inspiring vision. Imke de Boer and Hans van Meijl from WUR, and guest speakers such as Jaqueline Cramer (Utrecht Sustainability Institute), Helmut Haberl (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Austria) and Bob Hendrix (Chief Commercial Officer at ABN AMRO Investment Solutions Keynote).