The key to successful circular projects? Involve the entire chain

Tuesday 4 February 2020

We sent a team of journalists and experts out to talk to Open Call project owners about their grant project. We used their findings for internal evaluation, the start of an external impact analysis, and an article series about the lessons learned. This article is the first in that series.

Circular Flanders’ Open Call supports experimental projects related to circular economy. We’ve launched the Open Call for the third time, and are supporting around 200 projects, the support totalling 16 million euro. The projects are diverse: from civilian initiatives, through business projects, all the way up to local government innovation projects. ‘Well that’s all very well,’ you might think, ‘but what’s the result?’ In order to answer that question, we let loose a team of journalists and experts to talk to project owners about their subsidized projects. We used their findings for an internal evaluation, the start of an external impact analysis, as well as a blog series about lessons learned. This is the first in this series.

‘Just talking about which challenges the next link in the chain might bring, creates solutions’ - Tom Vanwezer, Valipac.

A key aspect of circular economy is the optimal use of residual flows. What those look like exactly, is determined by a lot of factors. Production chains consist of many steps, and raw materials have a long way to travel before they reach the end user. Starting a dialogue with all of the actors who are part of the chain can open a lot of doors to new opportunities and some surprising collaborations.

In order to make complex circular economy successful, while involving many stakeholders and partners in the chain, the first step is facilitating structural collaboration between all the partners.

Some examples

For the jeans brand HNST, Tom Duhoux managed the entire chain. No small feat, as this requires a ton of expertise and time spent doing research. His background as an expert in circular economy was a great help: ‘My first job was in the waste management industry. I got to know concepts like cradle to cradle and closed cycles. After that I founded a consultancy firm for eco-design, but the urge to start something myself got too strong,’ Duhoux says.

‘The textile industry is one of the most striking examples of linear economy today. Consumers are continually urged to buy new clothes, and pieces of clothing are often worn only once or twice. Price-wise there is a true race to the bottom between retailers. There is little concern about the environment or public health during production. Additionally, the textiles used are often a mix of different materials, because of which recycling becomes almost impossible. Denim touches on all of those problems of today’s fashion industry, which is why I wanted to unleash circular thinking on that specific part of the industry.’

Duhoux and his team went on a quest to look for the most durable solutions for raw materials, colouring processes, finishing, distribution, and returns, and brought all of those elements together in the chain. The main goal of that chain is to use waste in the most optimal way. The results are nothing short of spectacular: they’ve created durable denim, and the collaborations Duhoux facilitated won the brand HNST a Henry Van de Velde-design award.

Valipac, an organisation which takes charge of Extended Producer Responsibility in the field of industrial packaging, is also convinced that the entire chain should be brought together. They developed a shrink hood made of recycled shrink hoods, which are a cover made of plastic which you can cover pallet of bricks with, for example, and which will shrink to secure the load during transport. When a booster was added, this new shrink hood was more effective than the older, non-recycled, version.

Valipac’s Filip Vangeel says: ‘If you want to enable circular ways of working, people have to sit together in order to align their views.’ ‘That’s right,’ his colleague Tom Vanwezer adds, ‘if the marketing people don’t know that they’re causing some kind of issue further down the chain because they’re using red ink for example, it’s hard to go forward. Just talking about which challenges the next link in the chain might bring, creates solutions.’

A progressive, credible business, such as Valipac, is able to incite action in chain partners who would normally never meet or collaborate. Subsidies from government organisations such as OVAM/Circular Flanders are an important signal which add credibility to those who facilitate such meetings or collaborations. Subsidies like these can provide a ‘mandate’ to bring together the partners in the chain.

How do you involve the entire chain in your product or service? Four steps forward

1. Sustainability talks: a strong solution requires many different outlooks

Circular solutions aren’t just about using, or avoiding, certain materials. Human processes also play a role. For these to be productive, it’s important to find a constructive way to organise dialogue. With this in mind, city planners at Endeavour give empty buildings a meaningful purpose through an online platform, and by facilitating collaboration between residents, governments, and businesses. If all stakeholders are involved in the process, the chances for reaching true sustainable solutions are much higher.

‘What was the start for us? We were asked to intervene by a community committee in Antwerp that needed help because an industrial site was being developed in their neighbourhood,’ Maarten Desmet from Endeavour says. ‘The community members did not speak the language of the developers. We acted as an intermediary between the community, the developer, and the owner of the site, which was the city. During this process we discovered a need for an independent actor who connects all parties. It’s not choosing between what one person is saying or what someone else is saying; the dialogue is what matters.’

Projects which don’t shy away of starting a tough conversation, who ask open questions and involve users or other stakeholders to reach solutions, definitely reap the rewards of their efforts. The added value might not be immediately economical, but it strengthens the transition to a more circular economy which has long-term benefits. It adds humanity and sustainability to the process.

2. Consulting specialists: you can’t know everything (and neither to the experts)

Circular economy has different faces. Universities examine theoretical models and calculate efficiency, politicians compare strategies to create new policies, entrepreneurs turn their business plans upside down, and repair cafés are fixing left-for-dead appliances. These people and places are all necessary in circular economy, but they’re separate stories that don’t encounter one another regularly.

Not many people are aware of which dynamics are at play on different levels, between different sectors or domains. Sometimes it’s necessary to connect these different worlds. We can do this by sharing stories, or organising talks.

Magda Peeters, founder of the repair and share-hub MAAKbar in Leuven, sees the problem in this separation. MAAKbar is completely run by volunteers. She notes: ‘I feel a tension between [theoretical and practical] initiatives. There’s a need for some kind of neutral party guiding us through the process, albeit only every now and then, in which we learn how our activities contribute to circular economy. Guidance in dealing with diversity of approach would be more than welcome.’

Linking different visions and worlds together is one of the circular entrepreneur’s tasks. An open mind is certainly an advantage, Steven Vanden Brande from Durabrik argues. This construction firm from Drongen designs housing for people with disabilities to facilitate independent living with their project Toontjeshuizen. The houses are built in a circuclar and modular way. It’s co-created with nine Flemish partners from the care sector. Trusting the expertise of others with a project as broad as this is of course vital, but not always evident. Steven Vanden Brande shares: ‘I learned to see my own limitations. I may be an expert in a certain field, but outside of that there’s a whole universe of fields that I know nothing about. It’s not about what you can learn in an evening, but about things you can only learn through years of experience.’

Maarten Desmet of Endeavour agrees that there is a lot of expertise with people everywhere: ‘In a city development project file, you need a proper financial and technical plan, neither of which we’re specialists at. We look for neighbouring residents who do have these specialisations. It’s about getting them together.’

3. Find inspiration and share knowledge: the wheel has already been invented, find what solutions are already out there

Every now and again, taking a peek at what others are doing can spark some fresh ideas. VVSG organised inspiration trips for towns and cities to Almere, Rotterdam, Venlo and Leopoldsburg, to learn from local projects around circular economy.

Organic digester Tim Keysers from the Arendonk based Arbio, linked different existing machines together in the context of an Open Call project, and single-handedly developed a new way to market the yields from his digestion process, an agricultural residual flow. ‘During my search I followed different paths and worked out a system with different machines that work independently from each other in different places in Europe. I built a cascade of machines,’ Keysers explains. He adds that connecting different worlds, wasn’t always easy. ‘Many colleagues let me in on their challenges when it came to costs or risk. I went along with them in their flow, but with some partners I really had to pull teeth. For example, the man in charge of reverse osmosis mainly wanted to sell reverse osmosis installations, and the person from the dryer wanted the same for his part. They’re two specific and complex worlds. There’s a reason why such an installation hadn’t been done before today. [...] There is technical support for the machines, but that’s for each in their own domain. All together, that’s my area.’

Keyser likes nothing more than people peeking at what he’s doing to gain more ideas: ‘I won an innovation award for my installation. Because of that, the project gained a lot of attention within the agricultural press, which most agricultural digesters are still paying attention to. As a consequence, I’ve received a lot of questions from colleagues who want to recover their nitrogen. There are other installations with available warmth who want to make a kind of copy of mine.’

Open source is also a way forward: by sharing source data with each other on a platform, everyone can work together on research and everyone is up to date on the latest developments. BioFab Flanders, for example, takes part in this. This is an organisation which researches the use of fungus species to turn dumped raw materials into biodegradable materials. They operate from an open biolab in Ghent, where a community meets each other and where workshops and events take place. ‘What we need in Flanders isn’t one giant biolab, but a network of collaborating, smaller, local labs,’ co-founder Winnie Poncelet states.

4. The importance of physical hubs: innovation starts where you can have surprising encounters

Working together often happens within a local context. Whoever can work with the residual flows of their neighbour, doesn’t really think twice about it. The environmental advantages of local collaboration are known. Therefore, hubs and meeting spaces play an important role in building this type of ecosystem. This way, you can see the rise of local networks around circular themes, where people with different backgrounds inspire and influence each other.

Eatmosphere, a culinary organisation against food waste, developed a foodlab together with Proef! Terroir. With that brand they unite local food products, producers, consumers, and food heritage. Their products include making kimchi with local cabbage types to sauces based on the exoskeleton of shrimp, and to recipes with old apple and pear species. A large part of the magic happens in the foodlab Proef! itself. Steven Desair of Eatosphere tells us more: ‘In the foodlab we develop recipes for local residual flows. Our kitchen is a hub for constant innovation. If a top chef comes by who wants to have miso from a certain grain and not based on soybeans, you really see some cross-pollination happening.’

Creating a meeting space will already engender a lot. Steven Desair: ‘From the moment we were physically present with a pop-up restaurant, we were booming. People knew where to go, and that significantly increased our reach. We took the visitors along in our story, and they liked that. They didn’t only come to eat, but allowed themselves to be surprised by the food.’

A lot of projects from the Open Call take this notion to heart and create a physical centre. Green space manager Pro Natura and waste management business Renewi would like to build a site where different partners can tackle biomass residual flows. MAAKbar is now a centre for everything around repair and sharing in Leuven. Aside from their function as a tools library, they also organise workshops, open studios, and repair cafés, and community-based trips to other locations.

In the plastic industry, local collaboration became a necessity. A lot of plastic waste was exported to China, but they recently closed its borders to this type of export. This event stimulates initiatives to realise steps from the production and recycling chain closer to home, like Valipac did with their shrink hoods, and plastics federation Centexbel with a project around circular hospital linen.

Opening dialogue can open doors. Would you like to broaden your own circular horizon? Circular Flanders stimulates local learning networks via events like Community Night and other events all throughout the year.

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Written by Isabelle Vanhoutte en Winnie Poncelet