How to pin down and spin the ‘Circular Economy’ — before it’s too late? (3rd SITE4Society Event)

A joint post by Prof. Shyama V. Ramani and Maria Tomai

The many varied possibilities of the ‘Circular Economy’ are starting to enter the public consciousness. But what is it exactly? “Looking beyond the current ‘take, make and dispose’ extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.” That is one definition, provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity dedicated to the circular economy.

There is a clear and even natural link between the Circular Economy and the Sustainable Development Goals – and therefore a clear role to play for institutions like United Nations University. To this end, in June 2018, researchers, international policymakers, and staff and students of UNU and Maastricht University gathered in Maastricht for a 3-day conference on ‘Knowledge Sharing for Urban Sustainability and Catching up to a Circular Economy’ – a conference hosted by the SITE4Society collective and Prof. Shyama V. Ramani.

In the afternoon, the Mayor of Maastricht, Annemarie Penn-te Strake gave a warm welcome to all participants at Maastricht City Hall. She was followed by Mr. Herman Huisman, a senior advisor and coordinator of international projects at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (RWS), who presented the Dutch National Strategy and Vision for dealing with Municipal Solid Waste Management. Mr. Hennie van Eck, senior policy officer Waste Management of the municipality of Maastricht, followed up, introducing the Maastricht Zero Waste 2030 vision and the Maastricht waste management system. Finally, the participants had a fruitful panel discussion, about their countries’ perspectives and take-aways from that day, as well as what each country was able (or not) to implement from the processes observed.

On the second day of the conference, presentations covered the challenges of shifting to a circular economy from various perspectives. Prof. Rene Kemp opened the morning session, explaining the different kinds of systemic engagements needed to transition towards a circular economy, illustrating his ideas with examples of the smartphone repair industry in the Netherlands and China.


The main characteristics and challenges of the municipal solid waste management systems in Accra, Athens and Maastricht were then presented by Ms. Maria Tomai, based on her field research in those three cities. What are the pillars of sustainable change and where should each city turn its focus to, were some of the key points of her presentation.


Dr. Charalampos Fotakis from the cleaning and recycling division of the Municipality of Athens highlighted local SME value-chains / clusters and use of new technologies as some of the opportunities that Athens needs to take advantage of, in order to improve its waste management system.


“Our challenges in waste management will only be solved through behavioural change and a full and thorough revision of the waste management chain,” said Dr. Harris Andoh, research scientist at CSIR-Ghana, in his presentation on the Ghana National Waste Management system.


Common points with Ghana were also identified in the Chinese National waste management system, presented by Mr. Herman Huisman. ‘’It is still much more common for waste to be thrown away unsorted,” he said, “while landfill remains the commonest destination for waste collected through the formal waste disposal system”.


Sharing his experience as a Senior Adviser and Urban Expert, Dr. Raja Venkataramani described the evolution and framework of the policy in India, as well as the salient elements of its implementation. “In building the future, it is important not to make the mistakes of the past!’’ was the final comment of his presentation.


Insights on the waste management system in São Paolo, Brazil, were given by the next speaker, Melissa Benito Gragnani, an alumna of UNU-MERIT’s MPP Programme who is an Urban Planner with extensive experience in policy design. ‘’The growing generation of solid waste in Brazil is an alarming fact’’, she said. But, how does the current legal framework shape the situation and what are the policy designs guidelines? These were some of the questions she covered in her presentation.


The role of technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and governance in solid waste management in Urban India was thoroughly analysed by Manish Bhandari, a solid waste management specialist. Mr. Bhandari supported his arguments with examples from various cities in India.


Dr. Hiroshan Hettiarachchi, Head of the Waste Management Unit at our sister institute, UNU-FLORES, spoke of ‘Nexus’ thinking as a catalyst to improve social, economic, and environmental aspects of society. His presentation focused on how to manage both solid waste and wastewater, as well as safe use of wastewater in agriculture (SUWA).


A remarkable presentation about ‘Nudge’ strategies and behavioural science for a circular economy was given by Dr. Sanae Okamoto, researcher at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience at Maastricht University and Director for Asian Affairs at the University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN). “We make decisions as a function of the environment that we are in,” she said, supporting her argument with examples of bias and nudging.


The final presentation by Dr. Asel Doranova, Senior Expert at Technopolis Group, with long-term experience on eco-innovation and green economy policies focused on smart design for the circular economy, highlighting examples from the former Soviet Union, and their application today.


During the last day of the conference, speakers and special guests discussed the outcomes of the previous days and how each can carry the momentum forward. Stay up-to-date on all these issues and more at SITE4Society. To access all the conference presentations, please click here.

Acknowledgements: We are very grateful to the Limburg University Fund (SWOL), Maastricht Municipality, Maastricht University, UIIN and UNU-MERIT, whose support made this event possible.