Interview with Jacqueline Cramer, professor in sustainable innovation at Utrecht University:

24 noviembre 2016

"Today mechanical recycling is used, but in the future it will be mainly chemical".

Interview with Jacqueline Cramer, Professor in sustainable innovation at Utrecht University:

"Today mechanical recycling is used, but in the future it will be mainly chemical"

Dr. Jacqueline Cramer is professor in sustainable innovation at Utrecht University, strategic advisor of the Utrecht Sustainability Institute and member of the Amsterdam Economic Board, particularly in charge of the circular economy. She is also director of the consultancy firm ‘Sustainable Entrepreneurship; strategy and innovation consulting'. Before she was Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (February 2007 – February 2010). She is considered to be one of the top European experts in circular economy, a paradigm which is strongly connected to chemistry.

A few decades ago the word chemistry had a negative connotation for many people in relation to the environment. Today, fortunately, this view has changed and chemistry is seen as an ally of the environment. What are the causes of this change?
I agree that the reputation of chemistry has improved compared to the 1970s. Back then chemistry was associated with the chemical industry that was polluting a lot: air, water, and soil. The first response of the chemical industry was a defensive stance, but then in the 80s they soon started to work on responsible care programmes in order to improve production processes and products and also environmental performance. So, chemical industry has a long tradition of working on these two fields at the same time. In the course of time this tradition has enhanced. There are still chemical companies that are not doing a good job, but many are thinking how to make things greener in the whole chain: from raw materials to building relationships with the customers in such a way that, at the end of its life, the product is not thrown away, but reused. More companies are keen to issues like circular economy than ever before because they see that's the way forward. Of course research and innovation have made a great contribution to this change along with social pressure. Now, if a company does not perform well environmentally, that makes a difference in the way it is perceived by investors.

How can chemistry contribute to make circular economy a reality? Could you give us an illustrative example?
A circular economy implies that all products and materials are reused and recycled at high value and no resource is spilled. Moreover It means that we take into account the resilience of natural ecosystems. In this view, chemistry is first of all important when it comes to reduce the amount of resources used per unit of product. Consequently, this involves less resource and energy use. Secondly, you also need chemistry in redesigning products in such a way that these products can be brought back after use into the product cycle. We call cradle to cradle design. Thirdly, chemistry is crucial in developing innovative ways of high value recycling of residual waste streams. We, here in Amsterdam, are working for instance on innovative ways of recycling non-wearable textiles. Today mechanical recycling is used but in the future it will be mainly a chemical recycling process. The idea is to break these textiles into their smallest chemical components to build up new materials out of them. Another example is high value recycling of biomass (e.g. grocery, fruit and garden residual waste) via biorefinery. It means to refine biomass in such a way that you end up with the basic chemical components which you can use again in chemical processes.

Do you think we can move towards a fully developed circular economy paradigm in our complex economies given the current advances in chemistry?
In some cases we are able to close the full cycle but not in all of them. We need to innovate and to develop more bioresearch and new technologies like for instance nanotechnology. My vision is that we are now perhaps half way but we have to move towards a more complete circular economy.

As a member of the Amsterdam economic board you have the challenge to make this metro area a leading region in circular economy. Could you explain the nature and purpose of this board? What are the main lines of action to achieve its purpose?
The Amsterdam Economic Board is an organization with private (companies) and public participation (local government) that promotes sustainable economic development in metropolitan Amsterdam. It involves more than 30 municipalities in the whole area. The mayor of Amsterdam is the chairman of the board. I have been appointed as the ambassador for circular economy. I have set up a programme for the transition towards a circular economy in metropolitan Amsterdam that focuses on energy and raw materials. In the raw materials area we have the challenge to move from incineration towards reducing, reusing and recycling. We have formulated in the first place a circular economy procurement programme in order stimulate circular product development. Secondly we have focused in 9 main residual waste streams that are partly recycled or downgraded and partly incinerated. Our aim is to recycle these waste streams with high value. What we do is organising sessions with stakeholders in order to develop a strategy to reach this goal. We already know that we need most advanced facilities and especially a certain volume of waste stream because you can't recycle at high value with low collection. A biorefinery, for instance, needs volume. With volume and demand we can attract investment in this area. We are now in the stage of attracting business to install production facilities.

As you know, there is a well-established action plan and strategy in the EU for the circular economy Do you think that private companies are well aware of the importance of "closing the loop" of product lifecycles?
A growing number of directors and management boards in the Netherlands are aware of the EU programme and also of the need for a circular economy. I can say that circular economy is booming and everybody is seeing the potential and the opportunity of it. But in the business field companies are also aware of the fact that they cannot organise it just by themselves. They need orchestrators to get things off the ground together. On the other hand the Netherlands are quite advanced in waste management and that makes it easier for us to move to the next step. Besides, we are eager to do it.

CREDIT: Utrecht University

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