Circular Economy: Progress by Dialogue

The Netherlands is a frontrunner on the march toward a circular economy. The Dutch government has set the goal of cutting the nation’s use of raw materials (fossil fuels, minerals, and metals) in half by 2030 and of becoming a fully circular economy by 2050. While launching a government program is not enough to achieve this goal, it is the first step in engaging society as a whole and moving forward in typical Dutch fashion: by consultation, discussion, and, ultimately, agreeing to work together in a way that benefits all involved.

The Dutch ambition of becoming a circular economy did not materialize out of thin air. The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country of more than 17 million people in an area slightly bigger than Maryland. It has little room for landfills and few natural resources, so recycling is part of everyday life.

In fact, the Netherlands recycles 82% of its paper and cardboard and 94% of its metal, which creates opportunities for sustainable economic development. Such success and the scarcity of raw materials in the global economy prompted the Dutch government to move ahead of the curve and develop a more sustainable strategy for economic growth.

The Dutch program is designed more to start conversations than to develop a blueprint for action. It encourages the government, citizens, companies, and academia to share their experiences with each other. If we want to alter how our economy works, we need all stakeholders to cooperate and be transparent about what is feasible and what is not. We must know what obstacles exist.

For example, Dutch officials learned during conversations with water utilities that environmental regulations forbade the utilities selling the phosphates they can mine from wastewater even though phosphates are scarce, and the use of these phosphates causes no damage to the environment or public health. As a result, the Dutch government reexamined its interpretation of the regulations to give the utilities the framework they needed to recover phosphates from wastewater and put them to good use without compromising environmental safety.

Positive communication is key when engaging all actors on how to overhaul the economy. Governments tend to stress the need for big transitions in negative terms, such as, “We have to go circular, or we’ll run out of resources soon!”

People, on the other hand, are much more receptive to positive arguments, and the case for a circular economy offers plenty. A circular economy creates jobs, reduces costs, delivers tailored products, and contributes to a cleaner environment.

The benefits of a circular economy are clear for big Dutch companies, such as DSM, Philips, and Unilever. However, the benefits can be less clear for consumers and small to medium enterprises. That’s why it’s important to communicate success stories of smaller companies that challenge the traditional production process and show tangible benefits to consumers. This gives people a better sense of what the circular economy entails and how it can benefit them.

Take, for example, the heat alliance in the province of South Holland. Residual heat and CO2 from the Port of Rotterdam already heat homes and boost the productivity of greenhouses. The ambition is to extend this model to include other industries and neighborhoods. Another example is the website for small to medium enterprises that allows them to exchange information and highlight success stories.

Meaningful communication is fundamental to making the transition to a circular economy. A continuous exchange of information among stakeholders can guide that transition and create buy-in and adaptation. This exchange, combined with positive messaging and making sure all parties see the benefits of the transition, are the keys of the Dutch success in these first steps to a circular economy.

Jan Peelen
Attaché for Infrastructure and Water Management, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands