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Interview Jolande Sap 

A circular economy driven by purpose and profit

 Jolande Sap 

Jolande’s understanding of the circular economy and environmental regulation as a national Green party politician in the Netherlands gives Renewi a fascinating and valuable perspective. She explains how joint efforts are needed by business and Government to innovate and to drive forward the circular economy.

Why did you want to join Renewi’s Board of Directors?

Renewi is well known for the positive impact it has on society and the environment. By using innovative collection, sorting, processing and recycling methods, companies like Renewi are ensuring that, eventually, all waste will be used either as a raw material or for the generation of green energy.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to transition to a circular economy where materials are recovered from waste to be used again. I believe this is the shape of our future. We believe in the same goal – a strong commitment that we should be contributing to something vitally important in this world – ‘waste no more’.

Do you feel that large businesses are taking sustainability seriously enough?

The circular economy is growing, and more businesses are exploring sustainability, driven by the wider economy, legislation and social pressure. There is growing market demand for more sustainable products and services and increasing government incentives in the form of legislation and regulations. This means that more businesses are taking sustainability seriously and realise they should be contributing to society.

Much more needs to happen in order to tackle the big challenges the world is facing with climate change and loss of biodiversity. Large businesses certainly play an important role here and need to upscale and accelerate changes in their production processes, sourcing and output. But it’s not just a business issue, we need a wider system change towards an economy that is driven both by purpose and by profit. For that, we need active involvement and cooperation between business and industry, politics, science and the public.

What role do smaller companies play in sustainability?

We are seeing lots of innovation originating from smaller companies and start-ups collaborating. These shouldn’t be downplayed, because they are really making a difference to sustainability in our world. Smaller companies are the backbone of most economies and are also often more nimble and better at working in partnership. Some of our exciting new innovations at Renewi are coming from partnerships with smaller companies, such as our new PeelPioneers citrus residue recycling to make essential oils for things like detergents.

Could companies do more to work directly with their customers on sustainability?

I think more businesses are looking for guidance and advice about circular thinking and practices. For example, thinking about how their own used materials can once again be used for new products, or how their customers can make their own procurement practices more circular.

It’s a different way of thinking and it is something that more businesses need to be proactive about. At Renewi, we are helping our customers to design their products, to make it easy for materials to be extracted for reuse or recycling at the end of the product life. We also work with our customers to help develop their own circular business models so that scarce materials stay within the chain for as long as possible.

Does legislation go far enough to push sustainability to the top of the agenda?

Legislation is playing a part in boosting the development towards a fully circular economy, but we need more action. I believe that legislation will only succeed when companies and governments are working towards common goals. Long-term value creation through a circular economy is a very valuable message and I am quite optimistic about the future, as we can see many countries across the globe are taking huge sustainability steps. There is lots of legislative change going on, such as the COP21 Paris Agreement on climate change, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, the implementation of a landfill ban, the EU directive on packaging and its Circular Economy Package – all ways in which policymakers are supporting the reuse and recovery of raw materials.

But to be honest, legislation is not yet moving enough towards the heart of the system: getting the market pricing right. The problem is that current market prices do not reflect the so-called externalities – the impact products have on the social and natural environment. If we would price this in by taxing extracted value and carbon emissions, a whole new market dynamic would evolve, which would boost renewables as their relative prices would reduce.

How important is innovation to advance sustainability?

In the future, recycling will be more difficult as products become more complex. Products are made up of many more parts than in the past and are becoming smaller and thinner, with different layers of materials glued or fused together and being coated. We need innovation in more advanced technologies and collaborations to recover these materials at the end of their life cycle. We are seeing lots of innovation in less carbonintensive ways and more circular ways of producing products, and this all helps to make big steps in reducing carbon emissions.

So does innovation in the circular economy go far enough?

A circular economy needs solutions and ideas that go much further than just waste collection and processing, so innovation plays a really big part here. In the past, innovation and legislation have not been good partners – legislation has lagged behind innovation, holding back new advances. Governments and companies need to stop operating separately on sustainability, and instead cooperate in a transparent way to build trust and shape a sustainable future.

How will sustainability affect our economy?

There are lots of positives, from the new job opportunities that are created to dynamic new waves of innovation. There is a real social dimension of sustainability innovation that hasn’t been fully articulated yet but is going to shape our economy going forward. Sustainability is not just about planet and profit, but also about people. Topics like living wages, employability and job losses due to robotics are articulated increasingly as a responsibility of government AND the business world. How can we create inclusive, sustainable economies where employment is not just for the happy few? I believe that creating new employment opportunities will become an important goal for companies in our future economies.

What are the key issues for the next few years for recycling?

Plastics is a key area. We are seeing increasingly heavy regulation here, which will help. Innovation in chemical engineering is really driving change and we are seeing new ways of processing plastics that have previously gone to landfill. I am also very interested in the Internet of Things, and think that this will help in recycling, such as the sorting process. In the longer term we will also see a structural shift to producers selling their product as a service; this is already starting in the energy and consumer goods sectors, and this will impact the waste chain in a positive way.

Jolande Sap is also board member at Netherlands Green Fund, Chair of Supervisory Board at Netherlands Public Health Federation, Chair of Supervisory Board at Arkin and Fairfood, and member of Supervisory Boards at KPN and KPMG NL.