We desperately need the participation of business in the transition to a circular economy, because the practical implementation lies largely with companies. However, it is currently very difficult for companies to start a circular project. Innovative projects that are desirable in a circular economy thereby face multiple interdisciplinary challenges: consider (1) the
financial feasibility in a competitive market where common products with greater efficiency and (2) with more technical practical experience are produced, or (3) the social acceptance of new previously unknown products and materials. But the biggest, and also one of the first, challenges that hinders a company before any production can take place at all are the laws, regulations and permits required to build and operate a facility.
Case study: Black Bear Carbon – end-of-life recycling of car-tires
A recent example is the startup Black Bear Carbon. This recycling company has the ambition and resources to build a new plant in Limburg to recycle end-of-life tires. This plant will convert these “end-of-life” tires into the materials carbon black and oil. These products can then be used again, for example, in the production of new car tires. In this process, carbon black provides the mechanical strength and UV resistance/color of the rubber. But here a legal barrier arises, because on paper the company is a waste processor, which automatically classifies the products made as waste. This has major implications for the future of Black Bear Carbon, which is in danger of getting bogged down within the multitude of rapidly changing and specialized environmental legislation.1,2
Figure 1. Recycling of discarded tires. Source: De Limburger2 .
Case study: Rotterzwam – Reusing coffee grounds
Besides the fact that transporting industrial waste required (mandatory) VIHB registration documentation, it was not legally allowed to grow food on coffee grounds (waste) until mid-2021. This also applied to the few bins of coffee grounds transported by the cargo bike by the startup Rotterzwam, which started transporting coffee grounds and growing Oyster mushrooms on this waste stream back in 2013. Registration on the national VIHB list is mandatory for transporting, collecting, trading and/or brokering industrial waste. This made Rotterzwam in its early days the Netherlands’ smallest carrier of industrial waste materials with a “fleet” of one cargo bicycle. While traditional mushroom growers, who use straw (also a waste stream from the food industry), do not have to meet these requirements. Similar to the aforementioned case of Black Bear Carbon, there was no legal basis for Rotterzwam’s business activities until 2021. Unlike Black Bear Carbon, it does not cost millions to grow mushrooms on coffee grounds, and so Rotterzwam could just start with it, especially since the demand for Oyster Mushrooms made it possible. Thus, they have been selling oyster mushrooms for 8 years before submitting an extensive substantiated request to the DCMR Environmental Protection Agency Rijnmond in late 2020 for a legal opinion on this. On Monday, June 21, 2021 at 12:03 a.m. the time had come. Rotterzwam received the ruling from the DCMR: based on the information provided by Rotterzwam, it can be concluded that the use of coffee grounds originating from various holders can be seen as continued use and that therefore there is no question of discarding in the sense of article 1.1, subsection 1, Environmental Management Act, but of continued use instead.
That this is not as “easy” for other raw materials is clear, but for natural residual streams such as coffee grounds, as far as many companies are concerned, a (temporary) permit could and should be on the table as early as tomorrow, if the government is serious about putting its ambitions on the table.
For example, there are many companies for which regulations are very prohibitive because it is not possible to meet the legal requirements. This has the consequence that many circular projects get stuck and thus are not implemented. On the other hand, not every circular project is directly justifiable either, and it is good that – to a certain extent – a threshold exists for the reuse of “waste.” After all, it must also be done in a safe and truly sustainable way. But it seems that the toolbox needed to make these decisions is not sufficiently present. Especially among governments and the competent licensing authorities. These are struggling with a lack of capacity to properly and responsibly guide applications. This is due not only to the time available, but certainly to a lack of guidelines and/or in-service training needed to properly guide circular project applications.
Transition to a Circular Economy requires social and political action
It is therefore up to the government to more strongly support and also initiate local opportunities within the transition to circular business practices. There are plenty of policy goals set at both (inter)national level and also locally, but there is often a lack of the roadmaps/guidelines/action points needed to achieve these goals. Also at the European level, it is essential that other countries pursue similar sustainability goals so that the market remains competitive and large contrasts are not created across national borders. But to push all countries in the same direction and to obtain unanimity for this is even more difficult than to achieve this at the national or local level. It is good that work is already underway at EU level on end-of-waste criteria for plastics and textiles, but this development would not be implemented before 2024. Moreover, much more than just materials within the plastics and textiles sector should be considered! Therefore, the Netherlands could already take a lead in this and also extend it to different waste streams, such as for example natural/bio waste or waste materials coming from the largest industrial sectors, such as construction, household goods and car industries. Indeed, in the Netherlands, the Environmental Management Act and the Activities Decree also do not yet have a specific exemption for circular projects. At the moment, legislation cannot sufficiently facilitate our circular goals for 2030 and 2050. It is therefore clear that change is needed:
- The definition of waste: because it still assumes a linear economy rather than a circular one. Companies that want to reuse a secondary raw material or used product are therefore often bound by these linear waste regulations.
- Supporting circular initiatives: for example, through an interim exception status for good initiatives.
- Building and (re)training the toolbox (not just knowledge!): this should lead to a future where everyday decisions can be made with a circular consideration framework.
What does Ecoras do in terms of laws & regulations?
There are a number of initiatives that seek to change the aforementioned bottlenecks, such as the Circular Economy Legal Platform4. This is run by Hanze University Groningen and Ecoras, in cooperation with various organizations. Furthermore, circular chains are usually broad and cross-disciplinary: think of the chemical-technical, ecological, economic, social and legal aspects involved around the recycling of rubber tires or other plastics. Therefore, there is a need for the aforementioned disciplines to sit down and work together more often to solve broad circular challenges. The Transition Center for Circular Plastics will contribute precisely in this with the goal of paving the Dutch road to a fully circular plastics economy in 2050. This center will become part of the broad innovative chemical activities taking place around Chemport Europe5 and Greenwise Campus6.1 https://fd.nl/bedrijfsleven/1426301/grondstof-of-afval-toekomst-bandenrecycler-black-bear-onzeker-door-definitiekwestie (Consulted on 23/02/2022)
2 https://www.limburger.nl/cnt/dmf20211201_95710190 (Consulted on 05/05/2022)
3 https://www.rotterzwam.nl/blogs/news/eindelijk-systeemverandering-rond-afvalwetgeving (Consulted on 05/05/2022)
4 https://www.ecoras.nl/project/juridisch-netwerk-circulaire-economie/ (Consulted on 05/05/2022)
5 https://www.chemport.eu/news/article/circularplastics/ (Consulted on 05/05/2022)