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One-stop shop for Europe’s circular economy innovators

Ice modular structure

Although located just outside Amsterdam Schipol Airport, the taxi driver had difficulty finding the Circular Economy Expo. After a detour to a much bigger site – which had once held a fashion exhibition – we arrive at a converted barn seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But behind the humble façade is a driving force that could transform circular economy (CE) thinking.

Although located just outside Amsterdam Schipol Airport, the taxi driver had difficulty finding the Circular Economy Expo. After a detour to a much bigger site – which had once held a fashion exhibition – we arrive at a converted barn seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But behind the humble façade is a driving force that could transform circular economy (CE) thinking.

The Expo is one strand of a masterplan to create a ‘silicon valley’ for the CE, a place where new ideas can be developed, tested and put into practice. It currently houses displays of iconic projects from more than 25 exhibitors and plays host to international visitors.

Standing outside the barn is the ICEhouse structure designed by architect William McDonough, who helped to define the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ model (see box overleaf ). The ICEhouse, like the Expo itself, is a modular design made from aluminium and forms of polycarbonate that can be repurposed easily. In fact, in a former life the same structure was used as a reception area during the World Eco­nomic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

As well as holding a number of other job titles, Guido Braam is director of the Circular Economy Expo. He describes himself as an entrepreneur who believes in “filling the gaps” in society. He stepped into the CE around six years ago “because that’s one of the great example of where we have a failure in our eco­nomic system”.

Previously, as chief executive of a not-for-profit co-operative where member organisations including companies such as Philips and Heineken are obliged to start a CE project, Braam was instrumental in setting up a cam­paign to position the Netherlands as a CE ‘hot spot’.

Then, during the Netherlands’ presidency of the EU, Braam and his colleagues managed to persuade Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte to press ahead with a number of CE-based initiatives. This included an in- coming trade mission involving 140 people from 20 countries during three days in April to see examples of the CE in practice.

“It was really fun to do because we created an international network – people from Taiwan talking to people from Luxembourg, for exam­ple,” says Braam. “It is the first incoming trade mission specifically on the CE.”

This was Braam’s idea, and he confesses that his inexperience led to the exercise being some­what more ambitious than it should have been: “Normally an incoming trade mission is 10 to 15 people – an outgoing mission is more like 150 to 200 people. But then I already created a lot of enthusiasm among my international friends. Now Luxembourg will be the next CE hot spot in 2017, and Scotland and Slovenia are both preparing something.”

The trade mission was a success. As well as some deals being struck, it led to the Expo being set up with help from the Schipol Area Development Company (SADC), to concen­trate examples of CE companies in one place and avoid the need for future missions having to tour the whole country. SADC then pushed for an expansion of the Expo into a CE valley, which Braam describes as a “living lab”, in conjunction with the Delta Development Group. Delta, along withWilliam McDonough and others, was respon­sible for the nearby ‘cradle-to-cradle’ 20|20 business park, so it seemed a natural progres­sion.

A recurring theme with CE projects like these is the innovative way they are financed. Braam says new models of procurement include setting a budget and asking suppliers “how much quality can you deliver for this?” Suppliers then find it necessary to collaborate with each other.

Around e90m (£69m) of funding has been reserved to develop the valley, and it will involve large companies such as Philips as well as SMEs, start-ups, universities and government organisations. “This is to ensure everyone is on-board with creating a new economic system,” says Braam. “It is a ‘coalition of willing’. The barn will be refurbished and, 18 months from now, the first new places will be available. In all, there will be 1,600 work places for people who become a member of the valley. We will also have the opportunity for 2,500 people to work here on a daily basis. That can then be extended to 25,000.

“What you will have here is access to capital, with banks being located here, and access to knowledge with organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and William McDon­ough. We will also have testing areas where concepts can be proved. This will be the beating heart of value creation, with everything youneed to make that happen.”

For now, the seed of the valley has been sown by the Expo, and it is up to Expo business man­ager Navied Tavakolly to put the initial plans into action. He says that Expo partners wanted an “inspiring environment” in which to meet and have events, hence the creation of a meet­ingroom right in the middle of the exhibition. As we talk, a meeting about heating and venti­lation systems is taking place, clearly visible through the glass walls.

“This is actually the second gathering,” says Tavakolly. “Today we have several supply chain organisations getting together to come up with circular solutions for building climate systems. One of the developers of the valley is also here, to come up with inspiration for how the valley will develop.”

The Expo’s own climate system is modular and on wheels, meaning it can be moved into another building. In common with many of the projects on show, the barn’s redevelopment took into account that it would be repurposed within a year and a half.

The exhibition is arranged in a circle, with four themes – nutrients (materials), design (products and business models), function and regeneration. Tavakolly outlines a selection of products that exemplify a theme, for example, under ‘nutrients’ there is a chair made from a material called Ecor by Nobel Environment Benelux. Ecor can be made out of any recycled natural fibre and is rigid or flexible. The chair, it turns out, used to be milk packaging.

Tavakolly picks out another display showing carpet remanufacture.

“There are two companies taking different approaches and I think it’s very interesting,” he says. “One tries to see what kind of materials already exist – types of plastic for example –and how they can use those products in their carpet tiles, both solving an environmental problem and getting high-quality cheaper raw materials.

“In the other approach, they don’t want to use plastics so they focus on material selection and cradle-to-cradle standards. In a CE, both approaches can live next to each other.”

As we approach a mock-up of a living room made up entirely of upcycled and remanufac­tured products, we pass a four-stream recycling bin made by the Lune company: “The materials are certified cradle-to-cradle. But we are also working with Lune on a way for the bins to be returned to the company after they are no longer needed – components can be repaired or refurnished, or sent for re-melting.”

But it’s not just manufacturers on show. One of Braam’s ventures, the Powered By Meaning organisation, started a company called We Beat The Mountain, which examines residual waste streams and comes up with products to make from them. For instance, one display is an old shelving unit that has been remanufactured into a bench and there are plans to convert jetways – the tunnel linking planes to airport terminals – into building materials.

One recurring topic is the idea that busi­nesses retain ownership of their products. Mitsubishi, for instance, found that investing in better quality materials for its lifts, along with developing a pay-per-use business model, pays off in the long run because the products have a higher remaining value that can be transferred. Braam says that in such as case, you need a “progressive buyer”: “The valley will showcase this kind of thing – these front-run­ners can change the game.”

The ambition is clear, but how does Braam see these ideas being taken on in a world of low material prices and shaky recycling markets?

“What I see, especially with the big corporates, is they have to deal with price volatility, so it’s not so much about whether the price goes up or down but not having the chance topredict that. A lot of chief executives look at that risk and want to stay the owner of resources because then at least they know at what price they can get the material back. And then they can calculate it for the consumer. “When the oil price dropped a lot of busi­nesses went back into the closet, but you also see some very great examples. There is a com­pany that gets ferrous and non-ferrous metal from incinerator bottom ash. They did that because mining companies were too expensive – they found a source of cheaper material.”

Braam is only lukewarm about the EU’s CE package, saying it does not go far enough, focuses too much on waste treatment and does not address the huge differences between member states in how they deal with waste.

“We have to re-industrialise our economy. The package should be much more ambitious about generating innovation. Focusing on land­fill is nice, but what about the design stage – let’s look at developing new ideas that the rest of the world can benefit from.

“I don’t think change will come from regula­tion alone. With the CE you’re not solving an issue, you’re selling a perspective for a whole continent – that’s not in the package. I don’t see much enthusiasm.”

But you cannot keep a natural optimist down. To get the valley up and running, Braam is employing 14 more people and this could grow to 50-60 as the site expands. The opening date is scheduled for the end of 2017. Watch this space.

WHAT IS CRADLE-TO-CRADLE?

The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard has been trademarked. To achieve accreditation for Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum standards, a product must be proved to meet criteria on material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness.

The standards were developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. In 2002 they published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and went on to set up a certification programme in 2010 via their not-for-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The institute has offices in California and the Netherlands.

Currently more than 420 products have been certified, ranging from housebuilding materials to packaging and concrete mixtures.

www.c2ccertified.org

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