September 2020, for the very first time in the Tour de France's existence we’re watching this beautiful French cycling race this late in the year. I have been a fan of cycling from an early age onwards. My first conscious memory dates back to 1977 when Hennie Kuiper was the first that year to climb the Alpe d'Huez. With an explosive attack, he took off to quickly break away from his direct competitors. Now that we are halfway through the Tour of 2020, it strikes me that things are very tame and that we have not seen a decisive breakaway yet from one of the favourites. But, Paris is still far! That was what came to mind when I started writing this blog about the role of the water authorities and their ambitions with regards to the circular economy, and in particular, the production of raw materials from wastewater.

Be ambitious

The Dutch government is striving for circularity by the year 2050. No concrete objectives are linked to this, but it is, in any case, a circular economy in which waste no longer exists and raw materials are used again and again. Achieving this sustainable economy requires collaboration with the business community, social organizations, knowledge institutions and other authorities. Water authorities are going one step further in their ambition because they want to be 100% circular by 2050, the majority of the water authorities have captured this in their visions for the future. But hey, Paris is still far!

Raw materials in the lead

Focussing on circularity, there were five raw materials in the original leading group at the water authorities: phosphate, cellulose, Kaumera, bioplastics and biomass. In 2020 this leading group seems to have been reduced to three raw materials that have a reasonable chance of reaching the finish line in 2050. Biomass seems to have been hanging by the proverbial thread from the start and we have not heard anything about bioplastics for quite some time. Due to the persistent drought, an important favourite has been added: fresh water. I never understood why this one was not in the leading group to begin with.

It’s the team that provides the win

I myself get to experience the development of the biopolymer Kaumera up close and I notice that with good team play throughout the entire raw materials chain, Kaumera’s position in the leading group is being maintained. It is a lot of pedalling and hard work, but all efforts are rewarded by making progress in the application of Kaumera in practice. The development of Kaumera shows that the innovation process of a new raw material (and this also applies to cellulose and phosphate) requires much more patience than the development of a new technology. Where a technology can be completed with one golden triangle, a resource usually requires four golden triangles, which together form a golden circle. A different market party is involved in each triangle. This means that all interests have to be aligned and then Paris is further than you think!

Act as one to form a national strategy

In my opinion, there is no real concrete strategy on a national level to reach the finish in 2050. Take the raw material phosphate, a favourite that has long been expected to break away from the rest. In 2020, the percentage of reused phosphate from wastewater in the Netherlands is still less than 5%. The all-determining break away has therefore still not happened. Is this a matter of not daring or not being able to? For years, the sector clung to the expectation that an installation would be realized for the recovery of phosphate from the incineration ashes of sewage sludge. Had this actually happened, we would have surpassed a 50% phosphate recovery by now. So far, this expectation has been more or less a false hope and I am curious to see what the concrete plans are to prepare for an explosive breakaway. I am happy to see though that the recovery of phosphate is taken into account when new capacity for sludge processing is built.

I remain convinced that there must be a national strategy in which the water authorities as a sector, show a clear plan on how we jointly try to reach 100% by 2050. Paris is indeed still far, but it is gradually time to place a number of decisive attacks to break away.