Circular solutions

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We have a shared ambition in the Netherlands: to be fully circular by 2050. In a circular economy, materials and raw materials are reusable and waste is avoided. Witteveen+Bos works on circular solutions in a range of projects. Ambitions are translated into innovation and transition strategies, and through innovations we conceive smart solutions that we develop and implement internally or with our clients. The design chain is changing, as is our working process. Two circular design experts explain how creating the right conditions enable us to add even more value in projects. 

'Circular design is applied sustainable development by engineers'

The government-wide ‘NL Circular in 2050’ programme aims to reduce primary raw material use by 50% by 2030. Five transition agendas should help to change course. According to Arjen van Nieuwenhuijzen, expert in renewable energy, water and raw materials, such a vision document provides a welcome acceleration. ‘People are now really thinking differently, more disruptively and from the conviction that things really can be done differently. Now is the time to take bigger steps.’ Arjen has been using circular principles within his work at Witteveen+Bos for over fifteen years now. ‘From an environmental point of view, we have been looking for opportunities to reuse water, energy and raw materials at treatment plants, rubbish dumps and waste collection facilities for a long time now; so we’ve been used to thinking circular for a while. I’m convinced that, as engineers, we can help accelerate the transition because we make connections easily and think in an integrated way. If we apply such things as our sustainable design principles, we can encourage ourselves, our clients and involved stakeholders to look differently at the challenge.’ 

'Circular design means preparing a deconstruction plan for each design'

Increasing numbers of clients aim to end their linear processes, ensure that their energy management is in order and that materials are reusable. Rob Dijcker has been involved with the circular economy and residual materials for over twelve years. For instance, he helped Delfland water authority to develop their ‘Delfland Circular’ strategy. ‘We started with a circularity and self-sufficiency analysis. The strategy is now ready and good circular ideas were generated in work sessions with employees, which Delfland will be using to take concrete steps.’ Vallei and Veluwe water authority also wants to be fully circular by 2050 and to achieve this, they aim for all their long-term choices to be entirely circular from 2025. Rob and Arjen are helping the water authority to realise its ambitions and are working on this with advice agency Metabolic, which specialises in industrial ecology. Rob used ‘material flow analysis’ to analyse the flows in the chain and the possible measures to close cycles and become climate neutral by 2050. ‘Measures to become circular often affect existing systems. At Vallei and Veluwe the question quickly arose, ‘Doesn’t the entire system need to change?’. By zooming out, you actually see that new possibilities can be created on the current system boundaries. We need to look at the challenge from a different level. As engineers, we start from technology. We help our clients in their ambition and strategy and can translate these into technical and other challenges that can be resolved.’

Romeo Neuteboom Spijker, circular economy project manager and programme leader at Vallei and Veluwe water authority, is delighted with the collaboration: ‘Vallei and Veluwe water authority has high circular economy ambitions. It’s a fantastic and young discipline full of innovations that demands new expertise and collaboration. We’ve noticed that the Witteveen+Bos collaboration with Metabolic appears to be a good combination.’ ‘To create a good circular design, you should actually think through the life cycle three times before completing the design. You already improve a design just by making a deconstruction plan’, stated Rob.

Witteveen+Bos worked with Rijkswaterstaat on the ‘Circular Design Manual in the MIRT process’ in 2017. This can be used to make circular considerations in large infra projects such as InnovA58. Within the Rijkswaterstaat Impulse Programme, Rob also investigated possibilities to reuse the steel arched bridge across the Lek at Vianen, which was no longer needed. The outcome was striking. ‘The tender for the bridge demolition was already being prepared when I was asked to help with a quick analysis of reuse and sustainability gains. It became apparent that the cycle bridge and main bridge were in good condition for reuse and dismantling would be cheaper than demolition. The presented sustainability gains resulted in the tender for the traditional demolition of the arched bridge being put on hold and options for reuse were further investigated. We can increase our impact by opening the current system boundaries for discussion and through more circular thinking.

Arjen added: ‘As engineer we are often in the driving seat and can influence the choices that need to be made. We need to take the entire functional and technical life cycle into account right from the start. It means thinking ahead about material use at all stages of an object’s life. If you’re aware of the impact of your design from the start, you can work with the client and stakeholders to find the best solution. The sector’s traditional linear approach is still a challenge in this.’ ‘We need to be even more active in showing clients what is possible as we really need more space for circularity in our contracts. You get a better solution by assessing more broadly than on price alone.’

And the topic of circularity is not limited to national borders, as is demonstrated by the ‘ReCirc Singapore’ covenant signed in December 2017. Arjen is proud of this milestone: ‘After over a year of tweaking and building with partners - because you don’t do this alone - we now have an approach that enables us to jointly create circular solutions in the area of water, silt and waste processing and raw material recovery in Singapore and the Netherlands. Circularity connects on all fronts, which is what makes it so great, but also very much needed. We aim to be circular by 2050, so the foundation of each design needs to be circular starting from now.’ ‘And each of our designs also needs to include a deconstruction plan’, Rob added to refine the ambition.