The dilemmas towards a Circular Economy

It has been some 3 years since the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation published her first book on the circular economy. Her ideas were widely accepted and are nowadays the basis for all national governments, regions, cities and companies who want to push this way of life forward.

Circular Economy framed

The concept of the circular economy replaces to a large extent the concept of a sustainable development, which was introduced by the UN Brudtland commission in 1987. This Commission introduced with its definition of sustainable development for the first time a different mindset that is reflected in the ideas of the circular economy. The Commission formulated ‘a sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

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Every time requires its own concepts and this is the age of the circular economy. Of course, the circular economy concept contains to a large extend the same elements as were introduced in the second Environmental Action Programme by the European Commission in 1977, but it is too simple to say that nothing is new and nothing has changed. Stronger than before, the circular economy focusses on reuse of products and materials in four ways:

  • power of the inner circle
  • power of circling longer
  • power of cascaded use
  • power of pure circles

The Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation makes a clear distinction between consumables (biological nutrients) and durables (technical nutrients). In the end, the goal is to replace all non-renewable products by renewables, made of natural ingredients. Here the circular economy touches upon the concept of the Biobased Economy. However, the circular economy takes us a huge step further, because it says a lot about the way we should produce our products, build our homes and realise our infrastructure, in other words, how to build up a new society.

How to get to a Circular Economy?

Companies all around the world are experimenting with new technologies and new products leading to a wide range of biobased materials and products and new ways of re-using materials. A striking recent example is the carton paper car developed by Lexus ( These innovations show that a lot is possible. Then how is it possible that in daily life, the circular economy cannot be really felt yet? How do we come to a society in which materials and products are circular and economy and ecology are finally getting into balance. Is the present way we go forward fast enough to reach our goals or is extra effort required to get things up to speed? How should it be speeded up and by whom? Should companies take the lead or should national or better international legislation set the standards for a circular economy?

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A coffee mug entirely made out of corn

At present, national governments are struggling on implementing the ideas of the circular economy. In The Netherlands, some regions are taking action to put ideas into practice. The province of Friesland is actively working on ideas but is still lacking a decent policy framework. In the western region of Amsterdam, Schiphol Area Development Company, together with a group of enterprises, are working together on the development of The Valley. This area in the neighbourhood of Schiphol is intended to become an innovative hotspot for start-ups and other companies to develop new products and boost innovation ( This is one of the rare examples in The Netherlands in which an area, although relatively small, is more or less integrally working on the required change.

Comprehensive approach is required

Apparently, it is not that simple to get rid of old methods, production processes and habits. What can be learned from the past? In many ways, the societal change that is required has similarities with the environmental revolution that took place in the nineties. Companies were polluting, consumers did not think about what they were buying and governments were afraid to take measures, for example because companies didn’t want to lose their competitive advantages in using old production processes.

Real changes came across only when industrial sectors and the public authorities decided that a comprehensive approach should be developed. A toolkit with all kinds of instruments was made available. National, regional and local governments developed long term plans with mission, vision, goals and objectives. On all government levels, policy instruments provided tools to realise ambitious goals:

  • Social instruments such as education, communication and cooperation;
  • Financial instruments such as subsidies, fees and fines;
  • Legal instruments such as decrees and directives.

Now, some 20 years later, many environmental goals have been reached, in the field of emissions by industries, waste management and prevention, acidification of soil, soil remediation and so on. Of course, big challenges such as climate change still lay ahead.

Can all these instruments play a role in accelerating the process of the circular economy? The simple answer is yes! What is required is a government that doesn’t put all responsibilities on a level as low as possible (the subsidiarity principle in practice at this moment) but on the lowest level possible where sound policy can be made (real subsidiarity).

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Use of natural materials in the university library of Zurich

In introducing the principles of the circular economy problems will occur. For example when a provincial government will introduce regulations with regard to the way buildings should be build or products should be made (circular of course), this will scare of investors and companies to the neighbouring provinces. On a country scale the same thing can happen. Therefore, on a European scale, minimum standards should be set by the EU. On lower level, national, regional or local, governments can decide to use stricter rules or standards, and use other instruments or tools to compensate companies or its inhabitants or inform them on these rules. Moreover, social instruments should be used to explain society that again we are on a tipping point in time and that there is no time to waste. And what should not be forgotten is that new way of producing also provide new jobs and new financial benefits for communities and regions.

Should we now all sit and wait for ‘Europe’ before starting to act? Of course not. Also without a level playing field in Europe, bold governments on all levels can take the lead in setting goals, starting up dialogue with its industries and inhabitants a bring across comprehensive long term policy plans and short term action plans that will lead to a better living surrounding and new jobs.

Let’s use all the knowledge which is available and combine this with new fresh ideas of the circular economy and do not forget to continue with all important innovations that are taking place to make the spirits ready for change!

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