By Willemien Vlas
Junior Advisor, Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment
Royal Netherlands Embassy

The Royal Netherlands Embassy teamed up with Congressmen Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Matt Cartwright (D-PA) for a panel discussion on what the government and businesses can do to move toward a circular economy.

The July 7 event on Capitol Hill was part of the Holland on the Hill program, and drew a large crowd of 120 congressional staffers and representatives from nonprofit organizations and businesses.

Such interest shows that the circular economy is a trending topic among today’s policy makers. This became evident also in the introductory remarks by the speakers.

The Netherlands Ambassador Henne Schuwer mentioned in his opening remarks the Circular Economy Package, an ambitious package of legislative proposals by the European Commission that was discussed during the Dutch Presidency of the EU.

This package is aimed at furthering the circular economy by using economic incentives and setting targets for reducing landfill and mandatory recycling. Ambassador Schuwer said that the Netherlands was quick in adopting a circular economy approach, not just because the Netherlands is a small country with limited space for landfill, but also because innovative companies realize the transition to circular business models can be profitable.

An inevitable solution

Congressman Tonko called the change of a linear to a circular economy inevitable. This change will be challenging, but all transitions start with a change in mindset and a willingness to see opportunity, according to Mr. Tonko.

Congressman Cartwright applauded the Netherlands government for signing 130 so-called Green Deals (public-private partnerships aimed to stimulate green growth) within six months. He also pointed out the problem the traditional linear economy has become for his home state, which battles an overflow of landfill waste from neighboring states.

He said he considered the change to a circular economy a solution not only to landfill problems, but also for health problems that are caused by bad waste management and energy generated from fossil fuels.

Successful examples

circular economy July 2016 aThe panelists who took part in the discussion included Joost Böggemann (Inashco), Jason Graham-Nye (gDiapers) Eunice Heath (Dow Chemical), Laura Klauss (Better Future Factory) and John Pouland (Philips North America).

Eunice Heath started off the conversation by presenting Dow’s sustainability goals, of which circular economy is one. Dow sees circular economy not just as doing “good,” but mainly as doing good business. According to Heath, a circular approach requires system redesign and collaboration to keep resources at their highest value throughout the life cycle.

Joost Böggemann apologized in his pitch for the fact that his product (recycling metals and minerals from waste ash) is not as sexy as some other sustainable products, but he said that value can sometimes be found in unexpected places. According to Böggemann, amending legislation and installing subsidies for sustainable businesses like his will help ash recycling reach its full potential as the missing link in the waste-to-energy process for the non-recycleble waste stream.

Jason Graham-Nye from gDiapers set up a recyclable diaper service in multiple countries. One thing he learned by working in countries with different laws is that his business works well in areas that make using a landfill expensive, like Sidney, Australia, or London, England, as opposed to some states in the US where using a landfill is cheap. He said some states charge as little as $1.50 per ton of waste.

Philips, just like gDiapers, is on the path of turning a product in to a service by offering the service of lighting instead of selling light bulbs. John Pouland said that if his company retains ownership and responsibility of the product, it becomes easier and more efficient to replace and improve them with better light products. This is already common practice in the healthcare industry, he said.

Laura Klauss, co-founder and CTO of Better Future Company, makes a business of turning PET plastic into filament for 3D printers and educating the public about recycling plastic through demonstrations with hand-driven shredders and printers at festivals. As an engineer, she said she is often surprised by the lack of knowledge people have on the subject.

Often she has to explain that it is impossible to mix different types of plastic. At the end of the discussion she called for raising more awareness on the subject by educating the public about the advantages of the circular economy.