Societal challenge

Societal challenge

A growing economy and world population are placing an increasing burden on all materials with, in principle, the consumption of energy and waste production also increasing. It has been clear for some time now that such growth can lead to a scarcity of raw materials and energy as well as waste-related problems. In the past this realisation has already led to numerous innovations as regards recycling, energy-saving and waste processing. However, more is required and the expectation for 2050 is a tripling of raw material usage.

After the turn of the century the closed cycle became more and more popular under the name of the circular economy: an economy in which value is retained or is created through the recycling of products and raw materials based on the minimal loss of raw materials. It basically means the closing of substance cycles, keeping natural stocks and ecosystem services intact and retaining or creating value at each step. In a circular economy the entire production chain has to be set up in this way for each individual product.

Bridging period

In view of current technology and the state of the economy at this moment in time, it is not feasible for many companies and production chains to work in a fully circular manner. This applies even more so to complicated sectors such as the construction industry. What is needed is a kind of 'realpolitik': the development of a vision, learning and taking steps in the right direction based on today's practice. Companies and production chains are continuing to develop towards circularity. The aim is to support inventions and innovative approaches which strongly reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials and introduce them quickly.


Circular operations is a major transition for companies which involves:

  • closing cycles wherever possible (preventing/reusing waste, minimal emissions);
  • energy and CO2 neutral operations;
  • taking account, even during the design phase, with the recycling (and therefore avoiding waste) and a next lifecycle and therefore building in value retention of raw materials into products;
  • taking responsibility for sustainability of the chain.

    Circular operations is an important social task. On one hand there is a problem – most
    companies are far from circular - and an inevitable development. On the other, making
    operations circular leads to innovations which imply huge opportunities for growth.



Increase the ambition: sustainable production mission

Companies which are currently leading the way as regards low consumption of fossil energy and raw materials, such as Interface and Desso, have usually taken decades to reach that position. Once upon a time they set themselves a lofty goal.

Thinking from the perspective of a 'mission to realise fully sustainable production' produces an extremely different development plan for the coming five years than simply complying with norms. Sustainability is then no longer 'an aspect' but an integral part of the operations. It leads to other know-how: with regard to design, 'Nature Based Solutions' (e.g. biomimicry, biobased materials, waste). The relationship with society also changes (a different knowledge network, other relationships in the immediate vicinity of the company).

What can the circular economy do for a company?

In October 2015 the Circular Economy Platform published an information card for companies. This provides a brief overview of basic information about the circular economy and outlines a very practical perspective for the introduction of circular operations, including attention for the risks. Experience has shown that circular production and organisation (for example purchasing, training and schooling, cooperation in the chain) is only one aspect. In fact, the new approach may result in a company acquiring additional earning models, for example the provision of services to customers to support circular working.

It is important to stay flexible. Not all innovations succeed and, what is more, practice is changing all the time. An approach that was satisfactory in 2015 will perhaps have been superseded in 2020 by new forms of circular working.

Instruments to encourage more circular working

The European Union has initiated 14 pilots in order to develop an instrument to determine the environmental footprint of a company or product.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) is a method for certifying sustainable building projects. Certificates are available for new build & renovation, for buildings 'in-use', for demolition & dismantling and for area development. This latter certificate is interesting because it covers the immediate vicinity of a building, for example as regards spatial development (e.g. urban planning, ecology, rainwater management, mobility, re-use of existing structures), welfare & prosperity (e.g. regional employment, environmental perception) and area climate (e.g. air and water quality, noise). Buildings with BREEAM are turning out to be attractive investments.

Chain-based care

Circular operations also have consequences for relationships with customers and suppliers. Both affect the lifecycle of products: customers through the use of the products, suppliers through the raw materials and semi-manufactured products which they supply and the services they provide. Cooperation is therefore essential for a circular economy. For example with regard to searching for new, renewable raw materials/crops, such as fibres from biowaste, nettles (or other biobased materials), or plastic waste. With new service concepts, customers can be 'seduced' into using products economically and reusing them.


Sustainability is an attractive concept for inclusion in the company profile or the marketing. At the same time this represents a risk. Society tends to be suspicious of companies that place such a huge emphasis on sustainability. Companies have to earn and maintain people's trust in this respect.

The idea is to create a clear, consistent and reliable profile – make sustainability an integral part of the annual report as well, do not start trying to hide things behind a green façade, be honest about the damage you are causing. Work on improving the relationship with parties in the immediate vicinity of the company. Do not work on the basis of a 'sustainability portfolio' for a single board member and a spokesperson.



'From waste to raw material'

The government has also responded to the increasing focus on the circular economy, with the programme entitled 'From waste to raw material' [Van afval naar grondstof] (VANG) of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (2013). VANG is based on a two-track policy that supports the leaders on the one hand and encourages 'the pack' to follow and develop existing good practices on the other. VANG has eight objectives, e.g. with regard to waste, using promising chains, developing financial and other market incentives, sustainable consumption, chain sustainability and knowledge & education.

The circular economy policy is part of the desire for 'green growth': sustainable growth of the economy, which is not detrimental to the climate, water, soil, raw materials and biodiversity.

Biobased economy / Green deals / Dutch Climate Coalition

The transition to a sustainable economy also implies the replacement of fossil raw materials with biomass. The government is also stimulating this 'biobased economy'. The main focus is on using biomass for non-food applications such as chemicals, materials, transport fuels, heat and electricity.

Companies and institutions that want to become more sustainable sometimes encounter problems. It is then possible to agree a Green Deal with the national government to facilitate the implementation of such a sustainable plan. More than 160 green deals have been concluded since 2011.

The Dutch Climate Coalition is a partnership of hundreds of companies and institutions that are taking measures to make their own operations climate neutral.

Environmental and Planning Act

Sometimes legislation and regulations get in the way of the desired developments, for example due to administrative charges and the compartmentalisation of policy. In 2018 the Environmental and Planning Act (formally still a bill which is on its way through the Senate) is going to replace 26 old laws e.g. the Spatial Planning Act [Wet ruimtelijke ordening], the Environmental Management Act [Wet milieubeheer], the Water Act [Waterwet] and the Crisis and Recovery Act [Crisis- en Herstelwet]. The number of regulations is also being radically decreased. If permit is required for an activity or project, citizens and companies will only have to apply for one permit.

Environmental policy plans, nature policy plans, structure plans - these will disappear and make way for a single national environmental vision with provincial and local governments also implementing such environmental visions in order to simplify regulations.

Nature is also going to be covered by the Environmental and Planning Act. The idea is that the new Nature Conservation Act [Natuurbeschermingswet] – which is still being debated – will be included in the Environmental and Planning Act when it is introduced in 2018.

Emission norms

In a circular economy the emission of waste substances into the air, soil and water is zero. At the moment emissions are permitted within certain norms. Soil is subject to Dutch norms, while the others are European norms. Limiting values and target values for substances in the air apply to all EU Member States. The European Water Framework Directive [Kaderrichtlijn Water] (KRW) imposes the same water quality norms on all countries for example, meaning the quantity of heavy metals and (residues of) pesticides which are permitted in water. The KRW also imposes ecological norms, for example with regard to the types of fish which should be able to live in the water.

Farmers have to comply with the Dutch manure policy. The use of artificial fertiliser, livestock manure and other fertilisers (e.g. compost) is limited by law because too much fertiliser is bad for the environment. The limits vary depending on the crop, soil type and time of year. Livestock manure which may not be spread on the land has to be processed.



The development towards a circular economy with the corresponding companies and 'production networks' means a drastic and demanding change. Companies that operate in a fully circular fashion are currently rare. It is more common for inventions and innovations to be devised, designed and implemented. The biobased PEF bottle made from polyethylene furanoate will not make the production of Coca Cola circular in one go, but it is a step in the right direction. The following list provides, as a source of inspiration, a wide range of examples, sometimes at the level of a company as a whole and sometimes at the level of an invention. The selection is more or less random.


Van der Werf Vastgoedonderhoud  is working on the sustainable maintenance of buildings.
Gebr. Van der Geest maintains buildings and homes in a 'biobased' manner using linseed oil paint


Werner & Metz produces cleaning agents and works as circularly as possible.
NPSP Composieten produces plastic composites and works as much as possible in a biobased and circular fashion.


Waterschap Vallei en Veluwe wants its operations to be energy neutral in 2025, and is also working on sustainable innovations in a variety of ways during implementation.

The water boards in the Netherlands are going to make their waste water purification plants energy neutral. One water board, in Apeldoorn, has even started producing energy.

De Reststoffenunie is a partnership of Dutch drinking water companies that want their waste to be used as raw materials:


Natuurkampeerterrein Thyencamp is a small climate-neutral campsite in Hooghalen. Camping De Roos in Beerze is larger and has implemented numerous sustainability measures.

Retail sector

The sustainability of supermarkets is monitored in the Netherlands by Ekoplaza and Jumbo are top of the list with a score of B (scale of A to E, with A being the highest). Criteria: e.g. an organic/fair trade range, animal welfare, sustainable fish, energy-saving, green energy, reduction of packaging and waste. These scores are lower in the case of the fashion chains, with the highest score being C (H&M, C&A and Zara).


Recovery/generation, smart usage and energy savings:

Apeldoorn waste water purification plant produces energy

Drying chalk grains during transport

Wood and paper

Van Houtum makes sustainable 'hygienic paper'.

Metal, elektronics

Philips Circular Lighting – in this business model the customer purchases light but the producer retains ownership of the equipment and maintains, replaces and reuses it. See how it is done in practice.

Textile, leather, clothing

Saint Basics sells underwear made from organic cotton (India, Bangladesh), which is processed in healthy and safe circumstances (Bangladesh).

Mahan Eco is an environmentally-friendly textile dyeing plant.

Mud Jeans makes, sales and leases 'circular' denim clothing:

Agricultural and horticultural sector
Ecoferm Kringloopboerderij uses waste from the intensive cattle breeding sector (manure, ammoniac, CO2 and heat) for the production of algae, duckweed, biogas, electricity, heat and clean water.


Heineken is working towards climate-neutral operations, including the sustainable cultivation of barley and hops and the creation of a sustainable residential environment around Zoeterwoude, where the brewery is located.

Peeze Koffiebranders is working towards climate-neutral coffee production. The goal is to be climate positive in 2025.

Vitam Catering BV has made its operations as sustainable as possible: e.g. fresh local products, minimal waste, the use of imperfectly-shaped agricultural and horticultural products (e.g. 'curly cucumbers').


Interfaceflor is working on the fully circular production of carpet tiles, e.g. through the reuse of tiles. 'Mission zero': the negative impact on the environment must have been eliminated by 2020.