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Dutch businesses work to test the concept of a circular economy

The Netherlands has become a global leader in implementing the tenets of a “circular economy,” a radical new approach to sustainable living that focuses on reducing consumption, minimizing waste and reusing nearly everything. As Jeffrey Brown reports, some Dutch companies are repurposing discarded materials into other marketable goods, but it can still be a challenge to convince investors.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, a new movement that is bringing together big businesses and environmentalists, with the goal of rethinking the value of waste.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Amsterdam.

    It's part of our weekly segment on business and economics, Making Sense.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Away from Amsterdam's iconic canals and museums, a different kind of attraction, a place where the offices and hotel are made out of old boats. Solar panels power most of the buildings, and the herbs used at the popular cafe are grown using fish waste.

    And that's not all that's helping them.

  • Eva Gladek:

    This column, it's connected through the piping that's on the wall to urine that we have collected from the dry urinals in the cafe and also from our building. We can add some chemicals, and then we get these crystals that are actually fertilizer.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Welcome to de Ceuvel. Quirky and off the beaten path, its own little neighborhood in the midst of the larger city, it's a laboratory to test a new approach to waste-free, sustainable living.

  • Eva Gladek:

    This was waste land that was polluted that we got to reuse in a beneficial way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eva Gladek, an American who's lived here for more than 10 years, is founder of Metabolic, the company that spearheads the project.

  • Eva Gladek:

    We took a bunch of old houseboats. We eco-retrofitted them to make them as sustainable and energy-efficient as possible. We tried to reduce the amount of infrastructure necessary to run the site, so there's nothing dug into the ground.

    The boats don't have sanitation. So they all have they all have compost toilets and gray water treatment systems using biofilters. The soil is being cleaned using plants, and we have a lot of different experiments on managing urban resources.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Small experiments for now, but based on big ideas.

  • Eva Gladek:

    Cities are functioning as global resource drains. The metabolism of cities is linear. There is all this stuff coming in, it's getting processed, turned into waste, and then it gets spit out. And, actually, we need to create a circular metabolism.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    De Ceuvel is rooted in the so-called circular economy, a radically new way of thinking about the future that's built on a relatively simple idea: Maximize the use of raw materials, turn waste into a valuable, reusable commodity, so that nothing, in the end, is really wasted.

    The goal, a healthier planet and economy. And while the models are speculative, some studies suggest potential benefits are massive. For example, by getting more value out of existing materials, Europe could see an annual benefit of up to $2 trillion by 2030.

    And carbon emissions could be nearly halved. At the same time, it's a massive undertaking.

  • Harald Friedl:

    I would say we're in the first third, if you want to pin me down into an estimation. And I would love that, in 2020, we're moving into the second third of the transition.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Harald Friedl is the CEO of Circle Economy, a research and advocacy group based in Amsterdam.

  • Harald Friedl:

    I think our way of thinking, sometimes, we believe big change isn't possible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How do you change a mind-set?

  • Harald Friedl:

    I think how we go about it is practical, practical, and practical solutions.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To that end, Circle Economy has partnered with a number of Dutch businesses, one example, Black Bear Carbon — 45 minutes outside Amsterdam, the company has tried to apply circular economy principles to the tire industry.

    Martijn Lopes Cardozo is the CEO.

  • Martijn Lopes Cardozo:

    There's almost two billion tires that reach the end of their life. And most of them actually get burned or landfilled. So, this is a big environmental problem.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    At Kargro Recycling, workers sort tires that are then shred. Their base components, steel, rubber and a powder called carbon black, are separated and then reused to make new tires or other common household items.

    Cardozo says they're able to extract about 70 percent of the raw material from old tires, and they're now looking to build new factories.

  • Martijn Lopes Cardozo:

    Well, in order to make the circular economy work, you not only have to do something good, but also create a real business. It has to have good economic returns.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Still, it can be hard work convincing would-be investors.

  • Martijn Lopes Cardozo:

    Typically, the answer you get is, oh, Martijn, we love your concept. Once you have 10 factories up and running, we will buy number 11.

    You know, you're acting in a very traditional industry.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He says 1,500 plants could process all of the world's used tires, but it would require a capital investment of roughly $15 billion. And that's just for tires.

    Further, it's not only about convincing investors, but changing consumer habits as well, for example, not throwing away your old jeans, so they don't end up in landfills.

    MUD Jeans, another Dutch company, uses about 40 percent recycled cotton, and in addition to giving customers a discount for returning their old jeans, in a new twist, it actually lets them lease new ones.

    Bert van Son is its founder.

  • Bert van Son:

    Leasing a washing machine is understandable. Leasing a pair of jeans is maybe more difficult, because you wear it, it's yours. OK, I can understand that.

    But, still, the thought behind this, give me back your old jeans, I will use the cotton again, recycle it, tear it, apart and mix it with new cotton — I have to mix it with new cotton — and reuse it, so that we don't have to grow so much cotton every year.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Another big question for the circular economy, who ends up benefiting? As new technology and infrastructure will be at a premium, big corporations, at least in the near future, appear to hold a significant advantage.

    And could the desire to make profit derail the process altogether?

    Again, Eva Gladek.

  • Eva Gladek:

    That's where governments come into play. There has to be an alignment with government, saying, OK, this is where we want to go to. This is the vision for it. We're going to support businesses, create new financing mechanisms, and change policy to support that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    At the moment, all these businesses are far from being completely circular.

    At Black Bear Carbon, tires only go through the process once, and the trucks that get them to factory still rely on traditional fossil fuels. Likewise, MUD Jeans ships their clothes around the world and uses about 60 percent new cotton.

    Still, Harald Friedl of Circle Economy is optimistic.

  • Harald Friedl:

    If we have supported in five years from now, and said we have provided tools for cities to change, and we have provided tools for businesses to change, then I think we have made a big step forward to enable others to make the change.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And for Eva Gladek, there's no alternative.

  • Eva Gladek:

    I guess you can think it's a utopian pipe dream, but if we don't make certain drastic changes to how we're operating, we're really going to run into some serious existential problems.

    Unless we really make these fundamental shifts, it might not be a choice. And I think striving for a utopia is a really great thing to do with your life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A journey to utopia? Come aboard.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Amsterdam.

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