New agency paves way to more sustainable future

Summary

The government of Flanders has launched Vlaanderen Circulair to help the region transition to a circular economy by 2050

Circle of life

Earlier this year, Flanders began transitioning towards a circular economy, a system that makes more efficient use of materials and energy. The project is spearheaded by Vlaanderen Circulair (Circular Flanders), a partnership of governments, companies and civil society.

Launched in January, Vlaanderen Circulair is already making an impact. Recently, 86 companies and organisations signed the Green Deal pledge, promising to make sustainable adjustments to how they purchase and sell their products.

But the programme dates back to the spring of 2016, when the Flemish government gave its final approval to Visie 2050, a long-term vision plan for the region. Among the plan’s seven goals is the promotion of the circular economy under the auspices of environment minister Joke Schauvliege and economy minister Philippe Muyters.

“People always think that the only benefits of recycling and sharing are ecological,” says Dimitri Strybos, a facilitator at Vlaanderen Circulair. “A circular economy, however, offers opportunities for new companies, creates jobs and makes us less dependent on natural resources.”

A circular economy isn’t only about the efficient use of materials. It’s a broad concept that covers the smart use of resources like water, energy, food and even urban space. “We’re running out of space in densely populated regions,” explains Sam Deckmyn, Vlaanderen Circulair’s communication officer. “Intelligent spatial planning would help streamline logistics and mobility policies.”

Green deal

Vlaanderen Circulair is part of the Flemish Public Waste Materials Agency (Ovam) and aims to provide the necessary expertise on the circular economy and bring together stakeholders. For this year alone, the government has allocated €1.7 million in support of its efforts.

One of the programme’s main projects is the ambitious Green Deal pledge that focuses on promoting “circular purchasing”, or the buying of re-usable materials and sharing them with other organisations. More than 85 organisations and companies, including supermarket chain Lidl and public broadcaster VRT, have promised to set up circular purchasing projects over the next two years.

The clothing industry is hugely wasteful, so finding more sustainable strategies would make a major difference

- Sam Deckmyn

The companies have pledged to switch to re-usable products, use bio-based or biodegradable materials, share products and services with other organisations and lease products instead of buying them. Forty-seven organisations, including technology industry federation Agoria, are assisting the companies with the process.

Circular purchasing is the first of three areas on which Vlaanderen Circulair is focusing its efforts. The other two are “circular entrepreneurship” and “the circular city”.

To encourage circular entrepreneurship, the programme organises masterclasses that teach entrepreneurs sustainable business strategies that can lead to significant profits. It also wants to reach recent graduates and new entrepreneurs through a boot camp it will hold in September.

Closing the loop

Vlaanderen Circulair also provides online resources like Close the Loop, a tool developed for the fashion industry in collaboration with Flanders DC, an organisation that supports creative enterprises in the region. Close the Loop helps designer and producers figure out the entire life cycle of their garments.

“The clothing industry is hugely wasteful, so finding more sustainable strategies would make a major difference,” says Deckmyn. “At the same time, the industry is always looking for innovative solutions, so we hope to see the results of our efforts relatively soon.”

To help start-ups experiment with sustainable solutions, Ovam is in the process of transforming a former dry cleaner in Mechelen into a circular laboratory. Vlaanderen Circulair also promotes success stories like those of w.r.yuma, which produces stylish 3D printed sunglasses from recycled plastics, and Aerocircular, which disassembles discarded aircrafts and sells the parts to aviation companies and other industries.

Virtual city

The third focus area is a project that shows what cities could look like in 2050. It involves running a virtual city known as Reburg.

Reburg features car sharing hubs, wind turbines and rooftop gardens. Its centre is dominated by a white tower called the Industrial Symbiosis Tower.

The tower (pictured above) acts as “vertical industrial park for manufacturing small and medium-sized enterprises,” where one company’s waste is another’s resource. A conveyer belt moves the resources up and down the tower, from one business to another.

Next year, the civil society network TransitieNetwerk Middenveld plans to organise presentations and workshops around Flanders on the Reburg concept. Vlaanderen Circulair will also set up a network of Flemish cities and municipalities where participants can share their experiences with the circular economy and help promote new policies in the area.

Vlaanderen Circulair is only a few months old, but the Flemish government’s efforts have already received recognition abroad. Last year, Ovam received the prestigious Circular Economy Award at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in the Governments, Cities and Regions category.

The agency received particular praise for the way it initiates collaboration between different parties and for its bottom-up approach.