Value4waste: Meeting our ‘Circular Economy’ champions (5th SITE4Society event)

“Europe isn’t rich in natural resources, but we are very rich in human resources, and the circular economy can draw on those and export the technologies they spawn to the rest of the world,” said Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, announcing the roll out of the EU’s Circular Economy Package. His words serve as a guiding theme for much of our work at SITE4Society, including our latest event in January 2019.

The ‘trilemma’ of population growth, economic growth and environmental sustainability has raised conflicting opinions for many years. Recent research confirms this uncomfortable scientific truth. As long as our economic system retains its current structure and populations continue to grow, both high- and low-income countries will fail to achieve environmental sustainability. But, is it a deadlock? And if not, what is the way out?

Last June, our 3rd SITE4Society event proposed one possible answer to this burning question. Transition from a linear economy to a circular economy is one possible solution for sustainability without decelerating economic growth. During this 3-day workshop, representative policymakers, researchers and practitioners from at least 10 different countries gathered in Maastricht, to discuss their countries’ transition pathways to a circular economy, as well as the challenges of shifting. Later on, during our SITE4Society trip to Ghana it became evident, that without gaining real stakeholder engagement, no solution design can be effective in the long run. But what can various stakeholders actually do to facilitate this ‘green’ transition?

On 17 January 2019, the 5th SITE4Society event took place in our UNU-MERIT building, in a bid to bring new insights to the debate. Students and researchers from different disciplines, representatives from public and private sectors, entrepreneurs and social workers spent the afternoon together, ready and eager to contribute with their ideas to this discussion. Prof. Shyama Ramani gave the introductory remarks, pointing out the scientific and societal aspects of the issue, as well as positioning the circular economy as a way to achieve various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Novel added value?

Our three special guests demonstrated the novel added value of the circular economy – whereby new business models can be developed and innovation can flourish. Mr Erol Oztan, architect and expert in circular real estate, was our first speaker, who explained how the demolition, construction and management of buildings can all be done in a circular way, with clear economic and environmental benefits. CityLiv is such an initiative, inviting architects to take part in the challenge to design and experiment with demolition materials. Mr Oztan highlighted the fact that creating a circular eco-system for building materials is an untapped opportunity – but one that requires systemic changes and policy reforms to be achieved. Saying that, he left the audience with a challenge: How can we change politics to create a long-term vision for limiting global CO2 emissions?

We then handed over to the audience to come up with ideas to answer this challenge. Four groups were formed, each representing a key stakeholder in the system: i. students, ii. academics, iii. private companies and iv. municipalities. Moderators coordinated each group, seeking ways to convince lawmakers to limit CO2 emissions.

In the next round, Ms. Laura Nieboer, MSc. Student at UNU-MERIT and Mr. Borut Vovsek, approached the issue of the circular economy from another perspective – that of food waste. Laura, winner of the Maastricht Student Entrepreneur Award 2018, explained how she managed to convert waste bread into strong and ‘fruity’ beer, developing a sustainable business model in the process. Borut, founder of Foodbank Maastricht, described how he turns food waste into ‘vegan feasts’, engaging the community in preparing and cooking the meals.

After guiding participants through their entrepreneurial frameworks, Borut and Laura presented the sustainability ‘puzzles’ that they are trying to tackle. Borut’s initiative is housed in an empty building that may soon be closed and so his challenge is: how can he convince the local authorities about the social value of Foodbank, so that the initiative can continue? Laura’s challenge was different: How can she make her production process more sustainable? How can her venture convince local authorities to fund more start-ups that contribute to circular economy?

What solutions did our audience offer? For that you have to follow us on Facebook! But, for now, the essence of their suggestions can be summed up as follows: Retaining precious resources and exploiting their economic value is a goal of vital importance, but one that is feasible and can be collectively achieved. This workshop, in itself, was just one more step towards this goal. All ideas and recommendations discussed will be compiled in a report and communicated with relevant stakeholders.