Resource Use Efficiency stands for the sustainable use of resources such as water, energy, fuel and soil. Although the term may sound new and complex, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) researchers have been working on this theme for years. They are always looking for ways to use renewable and green resources in the production of food and non-food, new and existing crops and technologies that can be used to this end, and feasible changes within the chain for a more sustainable production. All under the motto: Beyond recycling, towards upcycling. This long read explains how WUR is initiating a revolution in the use and reuse of resources, to allow our available resources to go a much longer way.
This long read is a relatively long article on how WUR is contributing to Resource Use Efficiency. The article consists of the following chapters:
- What is Resource Use Efficiency?
- Towards a circular and biobased economy
- Closing cycles (e.g. fertiliser and phosphate)
- Economical use of water as a resource
- Crops for a biobased economy
- Avoid waste with computer technology
- Sustainable Food Initiative
We invite you to select the topics that are of particular interest to you.
What is Resource Use Efficiency?
Resources are becoming scarcer
Not a day goes by without a reminder that the number of people on Earth is growing. According to the United Nations predictions, we will pass the 8 billion mark by 2023. And the world population continues to grow. We also consume more and more. Not only food, but also other products. Creating these products requires resources: water, soil, energy, and fossil & non-fossil fuels. As the population relying on these resources grows, the resources themselves become increasingly scarcer.
Add to this the fact that climate change and urbanisation are also exhausting our local resources. Draughts and floods are more frequent as a result of climate change. They endanger our food production by reducing access to water or high-quality soil. Wealthy, closely populated urban areas require more and more nutrients while producing an increased amount of residual material and waste. All these developments make it crucial that we find more sustainable and efficient ways of dealing with our resources.
From recycling to upcycling
At Wageningen University & Research we believe this issue to be so urgent that we’ve included Resource Use Efficiency in our investment themes. “Effective is a better concept than efficient. You can be very efficient in your resource use, but if you have very little at your disposal you won’t be able to produce much. Our goal is to transition to a more effective use; beyond recycling, to upcycling. An example? If you leave the soil better and richer off after the harvest than before you planted you will avoid soil depletion and invest in the future,” says Remko Boom, Professor of Food Process Engineering and leader of the Resource Use Efficiency theme at WUR.
According to Boom, WUR has for a long time already been doing important work on the reuse of resources. “It’s our core business; plant researchers work on getting plants to produce as efficiently as possible, while processing technologists discover how to use existing crops to manufacture products as efficiently as possible.”
According to Boom, this knowledge can now be combined to study the entire chain in more detail. “We used to be primarily preoccupied with end-of-pipe solutions; trying to optimise existing processes. The next step is to go beyond waste processing towards full use of all high-quality substances in a process. Through closer collaboration you can integrate knowledge of plants and processing, study the production chain as a whole, and in this way take important steps towards reducing our resource use. Our wish is of course that these changes be fast rather than slow; we want to spark a real revolution.”
Limit resource use
How do we make sustainable, efficient and ideally effective use of resources? Reduce, Re-use, Recycle is a well-known triad in the world of sustainability. These are all ways of reducing waste. But according to Boom we need to take it one step further. “Actually, this list should be headed by Avoid. You can avoid needing resources in the first place and avoid producing waste. However, in most cases this requires modifying the systems.”
So where do we start? Here are few examples of how to bring more awareness to resource use in the short term:
- Avoid. By engineering crops that require less water or phosphate, we can avoid placing pressure on these ever scarcer resources.
By avoiding and reducing food waste we can save resources.
By applying data sciences to farming we can make production more precise. As a result of which we will need fewer resources. An additional benefit is that you also improve plant quality, so you waste less of the final cultivated product. And therefore waste fewer resources.
- Reduce. For this we need to develop new crops that produce resources. The rubber dandelion for example is apparently able to produce both resources for bioplastics and natural rubber.
- Re-use. We can reuse resources by reclaiming resources from water and residue and waste flows. For instance, we already have the technology needed to reclaim minerals from manure and residue flows from sugar beet and process these reclaimed minerals into other products.
- Recycle. We can for instance upscale sugars from old bread and re-use these sugars in cakes and cookies.
From bread to cake
Approximately 15 % of bread in Dutch shops is not sold and ends up as food for cattle or biogas. It turns out that this ‘old bread’ can be used as a resource for tasty foods. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has developed three products from old bread: bread pudding, gingerbread (ontbijtkoek) and treacle. The treacle is used instead of sugar to produce cookies. Consumer surveys show that the gingerbread and cookies made from old bread score high on taste and texture. And consumers appreciate products which they know to be produced using old bread.
Boom: “So in the short term we can already do a lot in terms of recycling, and we should certainly continue to work on this. Recycling mostly focuses on revaluing waste products. In the long term, however, we have to avoid waste altogether. This is the only way to leave the Earth stronger and less vulnerable than it is now. We have to think of methods to strengthen the land and resources. I believe the only way to do so is to study the entire chain from a number of disciplines. This will allow us to use high-value resources to manufacture products with superior qualities. For example, you can extract starch from beans and seeds by grinding them dry. The starch can then easily be separated from the proteins by using air blowing. In this way, a much greater portion of the resource is used, and you don’t need water or energy to dry the beans and seeds. The proteins remain dry and are of higher quality then proteins that are first dissolved in water, as with the current method. The resulting fractions are also healthier, because they contain more fibres. What if we find a way to optimise seeds and beans for this process? And what if we then integrate this method in the process of growing insects by feeding them the remaining plant fibres?
I think there’s only one institution in the world capable of doing this. At WUR we have all the knowledge and technology under one roof, allowing us to optimise even crops for these kinds of new treatments. We don’t just have the fundamental knowledge of our researchers, but also applied knowledge and extensive contacts with the corporate sector via our research institutes. As a result we are quick to respond and we can implement much more complex changes than simply optimising a small link in the chain.”
Towards a circular and biobased economy
WUR aims to contribute to a biobased economy: an economy that no longer relies on fossil fuels but instead uses renewable and green resources from crops. Ideally, this process does not require withdrawing crops or soil from the food production chain, since otherwise other parts of the chain will suffer.
There are many ways to manufacture products from non-fossil resources, also known as biomass. You can turn biomass into food, energy, chemicals, drugs and biobased materials such as bioplastics for packaging, casings for consumer electronics, textiles, and car parts. The remaining biomass can be burned or fermented for use as bioenergy. Crops such as rapeseed and sugar beet are naturally rich in oil and fats and can be used to produce resources, but crops such as seaweed and algae are also interesting because of the substances they already contain. To determine whether a crop is really interesting as a resource product, researchers consider not only a crop’s cultivation and harvest cycles, but also aspects such as policy, economy and sustainability.
Processing resources from agriculture and horticulture into food often results in residue flows. Our current technology increasingly enables us to extract substances from these residue flows. Take the sugar beet. Until recently, beet pulp was processed into cattle feed, alcohol and biogas. However, it turns out that residue flows from sugar beet can be used as resources to manufacture high-value products such as cement, drilling fluids, ingredients for paints and cleaning products, plastics, and even dietary fibres.
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In some cases residue flows from the food industry form the resources for the non-food industry. A step towards a circular economy; an economy where material and energy cycles are closed, with smart links between various sectors. According to the ABN Amro bank, the Netherlands has what it takes to take the lead in the global circular economy.
Food and sustainable packaging from residue flows
“There is no such thing as waste,” says Toine Timmermans, Programme Manager of Sustainable Food Chains at WUR.
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“If it was up to us, by 2030, at least 50% of all agricultural and food residue flows would be upgraded to food, cattle feed and/or biobased materials. This means resources would be used much more efficiently. Existing companies would generate more revenue and new companies would bring innovation and additional employment. This dream can come true if every partner in the chain, from farmer to retailer, does their part and realises that a circular economy can only emerge if we all work together. We are doing everything in our power to support companies and governments in this process and to bring together beautiful initiatives.”
Packaging materials such as paper and cardboard but also bioplastics can be made from green resources instead of fossil resources. Green resources include trees, plants and residue from agricultural crops. By extracting sustainable resources in this way, we can close the production chain of sustainable packaging.
There are already many different biobased plastics, with very different properties than their fossil equivalents. Some even outperform traditional packaging plastics when it comes to durability or heat resistance. With these bioplastics, the right additives and the right production process, we can create recyclable foil packaging. But also bottles, caps and crates. Not only plastics, but also cardboard, paper and foams made from biomass are already in use for sustainable packaging. A selection of the products WUR has helped develop: a bottle made from sugar beet pulp, the round ‘Rondeau’ egg box, a champagne cooler for Champagne producer Veuve Clicquot made from PaperFoam foam material, and tomato packaging from crop materials such as leaves and stems.
If we can close the cycles, we will need fewer resources. A closed cycle means that all residue resources are reused in the cycle. This can also be done in a targeted and sustainable way. A concrete example?
Cyclic Agriculture aims to feed the growing world population by producing 70% more food on the currently available agricultural land. To do so, plant and animal production cycles are linked in smart ways to create an integral agricultural system. In cyclic agriculture there are no waste flows. All products that leave the farm are used as a final product or resource for another link in the chain.
According to Martin Scholten, Director of the Animal Sciences Group, circular agriculture paves the way for climate-neutral, climate-smart food production. “It begins with fertile healthy soil that delivers a high productivity of agricultural crops, the residue of which is used for animal feed, while the manure produced by animals is used to keep the soil fertile.”
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Manure from agriculture can also be used as a resource in the mineral cycle. Manure is rich in minerals (phosphate, nitrogen, potassium), but also proteins, fatty acids and other important organic substances. To avoid environmental problems, restrictions have been placed on the use and application of nutrients, as a result of which not all manure that is produced can be relocated to agricultural land. At present, we produce approximately 25% more phosphate in the form of animal manure than we can use on agricultural land.
Together with his colleagues, Oscar Schoumans, Coordinator of Manure Treatment and Valorisation at Wageningen Environmental Research, is investigating in the lab how best to extract phosphate from animal manure. “By using clever mechanical and chemical techniques, we’re able to remove most of the phosphate from manure in an effective and relatively cheap way, so that this phosphate can be used as a secondary resource in the industry sector, for example in the fertiliser industry. What remains is a manure product better suited to the needs of crops (better ratio of nitrogen and phosphate with a high organic material content) and that meets local and regional demand.”
Green mineral plant
In June 2017, a large-scale international demonstration project (SYSTEMIC) was launched with a so-called Groene Minerale Centrale (Green Mineral Plant) at Groot Zevert Vergisting in the Achterhoek in Gelderland, the Netherlands. This ‘manure plant’ will be processing pig manure into nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers, clean water and nutrient-poor organic material. Traditionally, the production of nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser requires scarce fossil resources, respectively fossil energy and phosphate ore. In the manure plant, nutrients will be extracted from manure and reprocessed into fertiliser or secondary resources for the fertiliser industry. A great example of re-use that also makes a positive contribution to better use of nutrients and therefore improves the quality of the environment.
Another resource that is growing scarcer worldwide is phosphate, while the demand for it continues to grow. Phosphate mines are exhausted and erosion flushes a lot of phosphate into the sea. We have alternative sources for energy, but not for phosphate. Across the world there is an increasing danger of phosphate shortage, while in Europe phosphate is massively used in agriculture. To use phosphate more sparingly we need to find ways to close the phosphate cycle. But how? By reducing the supply of phosphate (in cattle feed and manure). Since 2015, European legislation has forbidden applying more phosphate to soil than plants can absorb. There is therefore less and less phosphate available for plants. This can in turn lead to slower crop growth and reduced production. “We’re looking for ways to improve absorption of phosphate from soil by crops and to meet the crops’ needs by applying small quantities of phosphate. We are currently running pot and field experiments to this end,” explains Frank de Ruijter, Researcher in Agrosystems. “We’re also investigating how to recycle phosphate and other nutrients from waste and residue flows to improve efficiency in resource use and strengthen the circular economy. In this context we don’t just look at the Netherlands and Europe but also at developing countries, as the opportunities and possibilities for recycling nutrients are different there.” Researchers also study the effects of such measures on the economy and the environment at farm and regional level.
Enhancing crops to reduce need for phosphate
To make it possible to use the phosphate supply from the soil more efficiently we need crops that require less phosphate to grow. This may sound futuristic, but researchers are working hard on breeding varieties that require less phosphate. For example in onions. After tomatoes, onions are the most important vegetable crop in the world and an important Dutch export product. Onions have a relatively poor root system and little root hair, which make it difficult for them to absorb phosphate. By interacting with the mycorrhizae in soil, onion plants can still extract enough phosphate to meet their needs. Together with her colleagues at WUR Plant Breeding, Olga Scholten investigates with her colleagues the mechanism behind phosphate intake in different onion varieties. “With this knowledge crop breeders can cultivate robust consumption onions that grow well on a low phosphate diet.”
Economical use of water as a resource
The quantity of available fresh water is limited: only 2.5% of the total water volume on our planet consists of fresh water, of which no more than 1% is easily accessible for human use. We have to be sparing with our fresh water, keep water clean, and clean polluted water for reuse. Especially in coming years, as water stress is expected to rise: the availability of fresh water is increasingly under pressure. This is due to the growing world population and subsequent growing demand for clean water, in combination with reduced availability of clean drinking water in many places, for instance due to climate change and increasing pollution of rivers, lakes and groundwater.
Saline, dry or wet
Agricultural areas are increasingly facing water shortage and every year the soil contains more salt. The reason for this is that fertilisation and evaporation leave behind a salt residue. WUR is investigating various solutions in the context of a large-scale research programme involving many partners: WaterNexus.
“In one of the project components we investigate how a golf court in an area with saline groundwater can be supplied with scarce groundwater as economically as possible. We focus primarily on greens and fairways. This is relevant research since worldwide many golf courses are located in silted coastal areas,” says Lodewijk Stuyt, Researcher in Water Dynamics at WUR.
For dry areas, an automatized anticipatory drainage/sub-irrigation system has been developed (iDrain) that helps maintain an optimal groundwater composition. This makes it possible to reduce salinization and retain fresh water in the substrate. This makes land plots less vulnerable during increasingly erratic periods of too wet or too dry weather.
Clean surface water
The quality of surface water is under pressure all over the world. There are many polluting substances that cause problems: nutrients, heavy metals, pathogens, and plastic and drug residues, to name just a few examples. Chemical herbicides also impact the quality of surface water. Unabsorbed herbicide seeps into groundwater and ultimately ends up in surface water. This is why since 31 March 2016, the Netherlands has forbidden the use of chemical herbicides on asphalt and closed pavements. This ban does not yet extend to private individuals, who continue to use the well-known Round-up, which contains the herbicide glyphosate.
Wageningen researchers have developed a method for Sustainable Weed Control to effectively control weeds on hard surfaces at a reasonable price. It consists of a combination of mechanical, thermic, chemical and biological weed control methods, and leads to fewer harmful substances making their way into surface water. Sustainable Weed Control has become commonplace and is already in use by many municipalities, industrial companies, harbours and airports.
Many companies see waste water as a problem, but with an efficient purification process we can turn waste water into a source of clean water and renewed resources. WUR has a long history of developing waste water purification systems. As early as 1977, Gatze Lettinga already developed a unique method for reclaiming organic substances and nitrogen compounds from waste water. WUR was involved in developing the THIOPAQ scrubber that removes the toxic substance hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from waste water and separates household water purification systems for black water (from lavatories) and grey water (less polluted household waste water), making it possible to reuse waste water. Recently a group of WUR researchers developed the so-called Aquafarm. This initiative has moved beyond water purification to water harvest. Researchers use the self-purifying properties of nature. The dirty water is led under optimal conditions through a series of organisms such as algae, worms, mussels, plants and fish, all of which grow on waste products. The harvest? Biomass and purified and perfectly clean water.
Growing potatoes and rice with less water
As the weather becomes drier, it becomes interesting to cultivate draught-tolerant varieties and crops. Our common potato is unfortunately a highly draught-sensitive crop that efficiently converts water into starches, but only when is there is enough water. Dutch companies (growers and breeders) are therefore keenly awaiting drought-tolerant potato varieties for cultivation in the Netherlands and export to dry regions. Think of Mediterranean countries, Africa, India and parts of China.
Finding a way to grow rice with less water may contribute to finding a solution for the increasing aridity. Gerard van der Linden: “In traditional agriculture, a kilogram of rice requires from 2000 to 5000 litres of water. We want to know what makes rice different from wheat. Why does rice have to grow in water? With this knowledge, we can start to search for a rice variety that can yield a high profit with much less water. We investigate this in the lab and in the field together with an international team from Wageningen, India, China and the Philippines. In this context we also take into consideration the social and economic effects of changes in cultivation methods.” =
Crops for a biobased economy
It’s interesting to adapt the processing of existing crops or discover new varieties that can serve as a source of chemical substances. These substances, such as industrial sugars or organic acids or amino-acids, can be used as materials for the production of high-value chemicals, i.e. chemicals from biomass rather than from petroleum. This requires plants that produce these raw materials in addition to the primary resource for which they are cultivated. Only then can we say that we are upcycling plant residue flows.
Examples of existing crops that are cultivated on a large scale in the Netherlands and that have the potential to produce more than they do at present are the aforementioned sugar beet and potato. Research is also currently being done on the possibilities of bulk crops such as corn, lupine, soy, quinoa and miscanthus, together with modifications in their production processes.
Chemicals from starch potatoes
In addition to petroleum, the chemical industry also uses green resources, for instance by chemically converting potato starch into sugars. These sugars are then used to produce biobased polymers using micro-organisms and fermentation. WUR has developed a starch potato that produces its own green chemicals, without the intermediate step of conversion to sugars.
If we find a way to cultivate new crops that can be used as resources for the industry, we can become completely independent from fossil fuels. This involves starting at the very base of the treatment processing and adjusting the crop to the production process already at the cultivation stage. To do so we need to renew the systems, but if it works, we’ll have opened a promising path for the future. A path towards an ideal production process with less waste and a high-quality product.
An example of a new crop that could play a significant role in the green resources ‘revolution’ are algae. For over a decade, WUR researchers have been studying ways to use algae to supply green resources. Algae form a promising source of protein and oily substances, suitable for use in food, cattle feed, fuel and chemicals such as paint and plastics. With the help of sunlight, algae convert nitrogen and phosphate more effectively than agricultural crops. An advantage of algae is that they can grow on infertile soil, with a higher yield per ground surface area than agricultural crops. In addition many algae varieties can grow on sea water, so that their cultivation does not require any fresh water.
To investigate algae cultivation, in 2010 a unique AlgaePARC research facility was created at Wageningen Campus, where various types of micro-algae are studied in different reactors in order to develop a viable algae cultivation model. In January of 2017 it was decided that an initially small-scale algae pilot in the form of a business case would be created on the island of Bonaire. Algae production could potentially make the Bonaire economy less dependent on tourism. The optimal growing conditions (lots of sunlight) make Bonaire ideal for the purpose.
The Russian rubber dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) is another example of a new green resource. This plant is unique because its roots produce both inulin and high-quality natural rubber. Natural rubber is a sustainable material that is used in over 50,000 products in construction (glues, kits), medicine (gloves, tubes), and transport (mats, tyres). Because of its high quality, natural rubber can often not be replaced with synthetic rubber. Natural rubber is now extracted from the rubber tree and rubber tree plantations are sensitive to pathogens. Furthermore, current rubber tree cultivation methods require cutting down tropical rainforests. The global demand for natural rubber is expected to rise dramatically in coming years. A new crop for the production of natural rubber would therefore be ideal. The inulin from the roots of the Russian dandelion is also a resource for the biobased economy. Inulin can be converted to fructose and used as a resource for example for bioplastics.
The EU project Drive4EU responsible for this rubber research has recently delivered the first prototype of a natural rubber racing bike tyre made from the roots of the Russian dandelion.
Avoid waste by using computer technology
We can reduce waste not only by reusing residue flows in the processing of crop to product but also at earlier stages in the chain. Remember ‘Avoid’ in the Avoid, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle list. If a cultivation process can be made more precise, we’ll need fewer resources to manufacture a product with the same or even higher quality. If the quality is better, less will be thrown away. By using computers in the cultivation process it’s become possible to collect crop data (thus saving on fertiliser), detect diseases (and intervene in time so as to lose fewer plants), and monitor quality (resulting in fewer crops being below par).
Computers, robots and drones are playing an increasing role in agriculture, cattle breeding, nature conservation and the food industry. They work objectively and precisely. As a result, less energy and fewer resources are needed and yields are higher and of better quality. Various units within Wageningen University & Research work on developing agrofood robots. In this context researchers look at the needs per sector and how robots can help. This involves not so much modifying existing robots as using robotics as a toolbox to solve specific problems.
This infographic shows in which phase of the chain there are opportunities for using robots and where this is already possible in practice. Enjoy a virtual tour of these opportunities in our Agro Food Robotics Lab Tour video.
More sustainable cultivation and agriculture thanks to precision agriculture
The use of technology and computer technology in agriculture has made it possible to practice precision agriculture. We can use smart devices in planting/seeding, caring, harvesting and storing that detect differences in crops or soil, decide whether action is required and are even able to automatically take the required action at specific sites and evaluate the results. An additional benefit of precision agriculture is that it allows us to reduce the negative environmental impact of agriculture. Examples of applications of precision agriculture include image analysis to detect disease in potatoes, sensor-driven grass and corn cultivation, reduced use of pesticides thanks to sprayer controls, or an app (AkkerGPS) for detecting disease, nests and weeds in the field. A system has also been developed to adjust nitrogen application to the actual needs of crops. This system makes it possible to use on average 10% less nitrogen – in some cases even 20% less - without loss of output. This system requires farmers to install a crop reflection sensor and process the collected data. Researchers are currently working on crop reflection measurements using a drone (UAV = unmanned aerial vehicle) and processing these drone data into a nitrogen-fertiliser recommendation. The growers can download the recommendation via Akkerweb as an assignment (task) for their fertiliser spreader. Watch this animation (by ZLTO) on precision agriculture.
Another pathway towards more optimal and sustainable cultivation and production is to monitor the phenotype (external appearance) of plants and animals. WUR has created a platform with public private collaborations to bundle knowledge, expertise and facilities in the field of phenomics and work together with international stakeholders. Researchers examine phenotypes in different ways and at various stages to see or predict how plants and animals respond to environmental influences and then link this to genetic information and vice versa. How do plants respond to stress? How do you measure variation in a crop while leaving the plants or products intact (non-destructive)? How do you establish at an early stage where disease develops and anticipate on this? How do you measure quality in the field? How do you use data to predict growth and harvest under changing growth circumstances? How do you monitor final product quality to deliver a high-quality product all year around?
The various techniques used in this context are illustrated in the Phenomics infographic.
Sustainable Food Initiative
In conclusion, let us come back to the leader of the Resource Efficiency theme, Remko Boom. In 2018, he will be handing the baton to his colleague Carolien Kroeze, Head of the Chair Group on Water Systems and Global Change at the WUR Department of Environmental Sciences. “Not because I’ve lost interest in the topic. On the contrary. All my time is now taken up with a concrete application of this topic in the area of nutrition: the Sustainable Food Initiative. This large-scale initiative involves universities, food companies and start-ups who jointly work on revolutionising our food industry.
We are not so much interested in creating a joint venture as a community of scholars, technicians, industrialists, start-ups, entrepreneurs and students, who work together towards a single goal. We want to collectively make a difference by integrating fundamental research and fast innovation. To do so we need to study the entire chain. Instead of over-refining everything, we can leave some substances in their natural form and use them for the final product. This requires adjusting our production processes, but it also costs fewer resources, and less water and energy.”
The initiative’s goal is to develop the technology needed to reduce total CO2 emissions, greenhouse emissions and energy use in the food industry by 50% by 2024. This is in line with the government’s plans and public opinion. According to Boom, the time is ripe for such a shift and companies are preselecting with this in mind. “Although the quality of our food has never been so high, consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the food that is on offer and the way it is being produced at an industrial scale. This is something we have to look at carefully, so as to make sure that the food industry and consumer learn to trust one another again.”
Join forces for sustainability
Boom believes that this can be done in the Netherlands. Contrary to companies abroad, many Dutch companies are cooperatives. They are owned by the farmers who grow beets and potatoes. This makes it interesting for all parties involved to invest in both the plant and the production process. “These cooperatives, but also other Dutch companies, are based on consultation and they consciously choose to embrace sustainability. The consultation structure makes it easier to reach consensus and adapt. Companies abroad tend to more easily switch resource providers once the original resources are no longer available. Here the producers are involved in deciding about new developments. Everyone sees the long-term advantages of more sustainable production processes; people are interested in joining these kinds of initiatives to jointly create more sustainability. Hopefully, this initiative will serve as an example to others.”