Circular economy: TNO is working on a future without waste

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Sustainability is one of the major global societal challenges of our time. It has become essential to create a circular economy in which the reuse of products and raw materials is maximised and their value destruction minimised. TNO helps by advising government, industry and other sectors on the options for the sustainable development of the environment, the economy and technology.

… Imagine it’s 2050. All around you, high-tech products are being designed and made from recycled material. Nothing is thrown away and the manufacturing and use of products generate no greenhouse gases. Government intervention has ensured that everything has a value, also CO2. Maybe not directly for you but then for someone else. In your neighbourhood use of these products is shared and partnerships are supported by new business models and companies. Both locally and internationally everyone is motivated to cooperate. The reincarnation of materials and products into different materials and products helps us to flourish and become an economically, ecologically and socially prosperous society …

Circular economy

It’s a nice picture, but how do we get there? Our planet has a finite stock of natural resources, certainly in the light of the expected global population growth. Moreover, the whole chain from extracting raw materials to processing these into products generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases that has to be reduced in the framework of the Paris Cimate Agreement. What helps is, if we make products using less raw material and energy (and thus fewer greenhouse gas emissions), make longer and more intensive use of products, and design products such that the raw materials can be easily extracted and reused at the end of the product’s lifetime. These changes are at the heart of a circular economy concept.

“The reincarnation of materials and products into different materials and products helps us to flourish and become an economically, ecologically and socially prosperous society”

New local employment opportunities

Apart from having a positive effect on our ecological footprint, the circular economy also gives us an economic boost since industry becomes less dependent on scarce natural resources and offers new local employment opportunities through services provision, reuse, repair and recycling of products and raw materials. “New business models with new business parties will emerge and current value chains will be disrupted or replaced,” Marinke Wijngaard, managing director of the TNO-unit Circular Economy & Environment, believes. “Of course, part of the story will be the more intensive reuse of residual waste. But a circular economy extends far beyond just recycling and reuse. It is a fundamentally different way of developing and using products. A circular society therefore also demands a radical shift in how we structure and manage our society.”

The aim is for the Netherlands to have a circular economy by 2050. Together with its societal partners the Dutch government wants to have realised by 2030 the interim target of 50% less use of primary natural resources: mineral, fossil and metal. This ambition has been set out in the governmental state programme for the Circular Economy 'Nederland circulair in 2050' (Circular Netherlands in 2050).

From refuse to recover 

Retention of value in a circular economic context is categorised through the so-called R-ladder. (Source: PBL)

TNO as a compass

TNO wants to give a powerful boost to the circular economy through knowledge, research and innovation. As Wijngaard explains, “Our domain knowledge and technical, social, environmental and economic expertise offer government and industry a compass for the transition to a circular economy, with a focus on building, infrastructure and plastics. We advise parties on how they can best spend their euros on innovations that have the most ecological, economic and social impact.”

“A circular economy extends far beyond just recycling and reuse. It is a fundamentally different way of developing and using products”

Wide range of projects

“Using specific high-grade technology we can make circular products and upgrade residual waste to new raw materials. This is the approach TNO is taking for the circular design of a mattress. And for the logistical optimisation of demand and supply for residual waste in the building sector. We work on a wide range of projects,” says Wijngaard.

A few notable examples of TNO projects are the macro-economic analysis of the circular economic opportunities in Amsterdam (Amsterdam Circular: a vision and roadmap for the city and region, a collaboration with Circle Economy and FABRIC) and ‘Waste2Aromatics’, where new technologies convert residual waste flows into aromatic chemicals. Or circular concrete, which aims to improve concrete products based on secondary building materials, and the Construction & Demolition Waste (CDW) model, a data platform on which the estimated demand and supply of (secondary) building materials is made visible and transparent.

“A circular society demands a radical shift in how we structure and manage our society”

Catalyst for a circular economy

The transition to a circular economy is also very much a matter of collaboration with and between different areas of expertise, so TNO is actively establishing national and international networks. “For instance, we coordinate the National Science Agenda Circular Economy Route and Raw Materials Efficiency in the Netherlands. And TNO’s Chief Scientific Officer chairs the Plastics Transition table. Using our broad expertise, independent analyses and convergence of parties, we want to accelerate the transition to a circular economy,” Wijngaard underlines.

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