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Together on Our Way to a Circular Economy

  • Monday 16 October 2023
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As a little girl she was enthralled by her mother’s soapbox. The white box with the golden lid fascinated her beyond measure. Little did she know at that time that years later she would use it as a metaphor in her inaugural address upon her installation as a professor of the Windesheim research group Networks in a Circular Economy(opens in new tab). On 6 October Liesbeth Rijsdijk(opens in new tab) delivered her address entitled ‘The Circular Value of a Soapbox’.

Liesbeth: “The soapbox is a perfect example of a household item that has lasted for decades and has lost none of its functional value. To my mother it’s only natural that she has never yet replaced it. In fact, she’s grown attached to it. But our present, linear economy operates entirely differently. It focuses on producing, consuming and discarding. And the consequences of this practice are becoming increasingly clear. It’s exhausting our natural resources and changing our climate.” We are currently exceeding as many as six of the earth’s nine planetary boundaries. This was pointed out in a recently published article in the scientific journal Science Advances(opens in new tab). All the more reason for us to move rapidly towards a circular economy. The work of the research group focuses on ways to accelerate this transition and what this means for the regional business community.

Text continues below photo, which shows Liesbeth giving the soapbox back to her mother

Liesbeth Rijsdijk gives soapbox back to her mother

From Doom Scenario to Do Scenario

When considering the consequences of the linear economy, one can be paralysed by the doom scenario. This is what Liesbeth wants to avoid: “We prefer to focus on a do scenario. This means we should collectively change the way we think and act. We should become aware again of how we relate to our planet earth as well as to the people around us. That will help us revalue in the broadest sense of the term.” A circular economy in her view is not only about creating financial value, but especially about creating ecological and social value. Liesbeth: “This revaluation will change our behaviour. Not just our production and consumption patterns, but also the way we interact with one another and with our environment. In a circular economy people, animals and the planet no longer serve the economy, but the economy serves people, animals and the planet.”

System Change by Collaboration

With the study her research group is undertaking, Liesbeth aims to help accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Liesbeth: “This concerns a system change and that’s why collaboration is essential. Between government bodies, companies, social organizations and sectors. Between political organizations and across national borders and authority structures. From different perspectives and policy areas we need to work on the transition cohesively and together.”

Dismantling and Rebuilding

The transition to a circular economy is not accomplished overnight. Liesbeth: “The old, dysfunctional part of the current system needs to be dismantled, so that the new circular system can grow.” This requires current laws and regulations to be amended. Because current regulations make it difficult for instance to use waste as a resource for new products. But legislation is not the only obstacle. Existing power structures and lobbying practices are often still another impediment. For example, due to conservative influences the construction industry is reluctant to seek approval of biobased materials.
These are some examples of obstacles to the transition. The work of the research group will help remove these obstacles over time. On the other hand, the research group also contributes to factors that may accelerate the transition. For instance, by supporting pilot projects at SMEs. These pilots are aimed at turning their linear business models into circular ones. This can be done by designing a circular building, with various parties working together and for instance the demolition company being assigned a very different and crucial role.

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Inge Grimm congratulates Liesbeth Rijsdijk after her installation as professor of the UAS research group Networks in a Circular Economy

Circularity in the regional area

The province of Overijssel has committed itself to the goal of having a totally circular economy by the year 2050. And to achieving by 2030 a 50% reduction in our use of natural resources as compared to the amounts we used a decade ago. That’s why the transition to a circular economy is raising more and more questions among SMEs in the regional area. Liesbeth: “The transition to circular enterprise will definitely involve challenges for regional SMEs. We would like to examine together with them how we can turn those challenges into sustainable opportunities, to ensure these companies’ future viability and relevance.”
Bringing about a circular economy means that we all should make production smarter, reduce consumption and revalue what we already have. And sometimes that means we have to make a conscious decision not to buy. So there’s also an important role to be played by the consumer. Liesbeth: “Studies indicate that the Dutch do think a sustainable future is important, but often don’t act accordingly and feel it shouldn’t be too much trouble or cost too much. That’s why it’s important not only to show the urgency, but also to present the action perspective; what can I do differently? Taking a lot of small steps together is vital in starting and accelerating the transition. So a do scenario rather than a doom scenario. Or, as Jonas Salk put it: the principal question we can ask ourselves in this is: ‘are we being good ancestors?’”

The inaugural speech can be watched below, the corresponding publication can also be downloaded(opens in new tab).

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