In the study of Derk Loorbach, director of DRIFT and professor of socioeconomic transitions at EUR, there is an unusual table. A linear relic, as it is made from old aircraft parts. 'And so circular after all,' he laughs. A conversation about the transition from a linear to a circular economy.
How circular is the Rotterdam economy at the moment?
‘We are on our way, but the economy is still very much linear. The port of Rotterdam is the largest industrial hub in the linear economy in the north-western hemisphere. The port’s business model is entirely based on the linear economy: we mine raw materials somewhere in the world, process them into a product, which we throw away after use. All kinds of companies have started making all the things we want. Governments have contributed to this, because these companies provide jobs and revenue for the government through taxes. Even in the city, a lot is still linear: we get our food and building materials from outside, do something with them in the city and what remains goes with the rubbish farmer or disappears into the sewer. When it comes to the environment and what we dump in it, we are now mostly concerned with being less bad. Those factories and those cars are already there, we say, let’s try to make them a bit cleaner. We do try our best to do it less badly, but in doing so we also partly maintain that linear way of producing and consuming.’
From less bad to circular: does it work out a bit in Rotterdam?
‘In Rotterdam, we have developed a better system of waste collection and separation and we use the heat released from waste incineration to heat houses, so they don’t have to use natural gas. These are good developments in themselves, but they are all still very much in that linear system. Because ultimately, we still need waste to produce sustainable heat. In the last five to 10 years, however, a new development has emerged, which is about transforming that linear model: we minimise raw material use, maximise product reuse, and we reuse raw materials to the highest possible quality. For example, by using the same amount of goods with more people, such as with shared cars. The idea is that people will act, produce and consume much more on the basis of what is renewable. Then you look much more at what is already nearby, what we can share and how we design new things in such a way that they can be repaired and reused if they break down.’
What is already happening in that area in Rotterdam?
‘Check out BlueCity, a fantastic place! The architects of Superuse Studios have redeveloped this former tropical swimming pool in a circular way. They have shown that we should and can build differently, circularly. So no making new concrete and putting in new stuff, but starting with what is already there. In BlueCity, there are all kinds of small businesses that form their own ecosystem, in which they do not compete with each other but use each other’s flows and convert circularly into something that also has economic value. That requires a lot of creative entrepreneurship. The challenge lies in the economic conditions. The competition is still in that linear economy, in which a lot of negative impact is not taxed. That is unfair competition. The municipality of Rotterdam is thinking about this: how to make it easier for circular caterers, for example, to establish themselves. But existing businesses and industry cannot suddenly do things completely differently. Some heroes do, but most choose to become a bit more sustainable. You see that in the city too. We want a healthy food environment, but all those snack chains do bring in rents and provide jobs. At the moment, it is still mainly a balancing act between linear optimisation and really opting for circular.’
A great deal is already happening in the port of Rotterdam in the circular field, though…
‘There, they have long been working on all kinds of policies to make the port circular. A fascinating conceptual challenge, but also very interesting from a practical point of view. What BlueCity does on a small scale, happens on a very large scale in the port. One factory needs a lot of heat, while another factory produces a lot of heat. With smart technology and by putting those factories close together, they can help each other. But the same applies to other flows. Chemical recycling of fossil plastics, for instance, after which they can make new plastics from basic polymers. The Port Authority is very busy trying to very specifically attract other companies to the port of Rotterdam that fit well into the ecosystem they are building. And at the same time, they are thinking about how to deal with the phasing out of the linear economy. ’
Are you optimistic about the transition to a circular economy?
‘If we look at transitions in the past, they are characterised by a period of five to 15 years in which an entire social system completely changes its structure and form on a very large scale. Think of the transition from horse and cart to car, or from coal stove to gas. There is always some kind of moment when that process kicks into gear, only you can only recognise it in retrospect. When I look back, a lot is shifting and the momentum is much greater than about 10 years ago. That transition momentum lies in three things: awareness, urgency and the alternatives. In historical transitions, these are the three recurring ingredients. In addition, triggers are needed. In society, these often involve a crisis, a breakthrough or leadership. Something that catalyses a movement within, say, a local council to change the rules of the game. In such a way that what used to be alternative now becomes normal. The municipality of Rotterdam is currently in the midst of this. More and more people will eventually move to that other side. They will join the experiment, so that even more people will see it. When we look back on this conversation in 2030, we really will be in a different world. Then we will have set up the mobility, energy and food systems based on circular principles. And we’ll still be sitting at this aeroplane table…’
This article is part of the magazine ‘Rotterdam Circulair’, produced by the collaborating parties of the Rotterdam brand alliance ‘Rotterdam. Make It Happen.” The stories from this magazine will be published weekly from mid-February 2023 on the websites of various brand alliance partners. Knowing more? Check out www.rotterdammakeithappen.nl. Have the stories inspired you and do you want to contribute to the development of Rotterdam’s circular economy? Send us an e-mail message. We are happy to connect you with the right people and organizations.
Photo accompanying this article: Lennaert Ruinen.