Amsterdam’s Environmental Saviour: The Circular Economy

Amsterdam’s Environmental Saviour: The Circular Economy

Saving Energy And Reducing CO2 Is Not Enough For This High-Tech City

Raw materials are a finite resource. As the number of industries which rely on these resources increases (e.g. metals for smartphones and tablets) so does the number of consumers. Not only will we start running out of these materials in the coming decades, but the processes involved in their extraction and manufacturing are often harmful to workers, citizens and the environment.

To rely on raw materials is not economically viable in the long term. As stocks run low, the market for the resource becomes increasingly volatile. Every country in the world trades its raw materials, so if one of these links can no longer deliver, the whole supply chain is affected. By 2050, the Dutch government wants the Netherlands to run completely on reusable raw materials. So the city of Amsterdam is testing out a solution: the circular economy.

What Is A Circular Economy?

The current system is linear. We take resources, make products and then dispose of them when we’re finished. A circular economy aims to close the loop, so that waste is reused, repurposed or recycled in a way that retains as much value as possible. This includes reducing thermodynamic entropy in the manufacturing process and avoiding downcycling where possible. If you use an old cotton shirt as an example:

Reuse Circles

  • Repair and maintenance to extend the lifespan of a product
  • Reuse and redistribution (reselling/sharing)
  • Refurbish, renovate and remanufacture
  • Recycle for part or full material recovery

Manufacturers will have to think ahead and create products that can be easily dismantled and reused – so in this case think of pure cotton rather than a blend. Another idea is for companies to lease products rather than sell them. So the company that leases you a washing machine would be responsible for its maintenance and repair. Then, when the machine reaches the end of its life, they would collect it and reuse the materials rather than having to mine for new ones. With advances in data science, storage capabilities and machine learning, these material flow systems are starting to become a reality. 

ABN AMRO, a Dutch bank, has just opened the Netherlands first circular building at its headquarters in Amsterdam. Almost all the materials used are recycled, and when the building is eventually taken down, it can be easily disassembled and all materials reused. The Circl building boasts circular solutions such as insulation made of employees old denim jeans, window frames from demolished office buildings and 500 solar panels on the roof.

What Are The Benefits?


  • By reusing things and switching from products to services (dematerialisation) fewer products will be made. Thus reducing emissions and pollutants from manufacturing
  • Any emissions created will be repurposed. CO2 can be used to cultivate produce in greenhouses, grow algae to make fuel and can even be mineralised. A team in Iceland have discovered that dissolving carbon dioxide in water and injecting back into the earth with a mix including basalt, that 95% will mineralise into calcite within 2 years
  • Waste products are repurposed. Organic/bio-waste can be used for livestock feed, biogas and even bio-plastics
  • In the Netherlands alone, a circular approach could reduce CO2 emissions by 8%, reduce land use by 2180km², reduce water consumption by 700 million m³ and import 25% less raw materials


  • Sustainability is prioritised over profit, so the lifespan of a company is increased
  • A circular economy ensures energy consumption is optimised and waste is reduced. Both of which make for more efficient production, which saves money
  • Recycling materials means a company does not have to purchase new resources and therefore avoids market price volatility and decreasing stocks
  • Improved relationship with governments and consumers by taking a more environmentally friendly approach


  • Disconnecting the economy from a finite, linear system
  • Resource savings of up to 70% compared to extracting raw materials
  • A new economy in circular system innovation and data science
  • A new labour-intensive job market in recycling and repair
  • Reduction of ecological footprint
  • In the Netherlands, a circular economy could make the government €7.3 billion and create 54,000 new jobs

(Figures from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Circular Collaboration)

Amsterdam’s Collaborative Economy

In our Smart Cities article, we spoke about the collaborative nature of the city. A study by Amsterdam Sharing City confirmed this, with 84% of residents showing a motivation to share. Extracting the maximum value from a product is the first step to creating a circular economy. 90% of the city has online access thanks to the excellent ICT structure, so startups in Amsterdam have been working with the municipality to create apps and platforms where residents can share with each other.


An online community platform designed by our very own founders at Eli5. Users can rent out their designer wardrobes to fellow fashionistas, so clothing gets maximum use. Plus users can soften the blow to their bank account with the rentals.


More than 20% of all CO2 emissions come from durable consumer goods. On average these assets are used for 10% of their lifetime. Peerby is an app made for sharing these items. Users can save the environment, save time spent purchasing items, save money on a costly purchase and meet lots of friendly people. The platform covers almost any item you can think of. From cars, bikes and cars for travelling; to gazebos, barbeques and folding chairs for a party.

Closing The Loop – Turning Waste Into Materials

Obviously, a sharing economy doesn’t work without products to share in the first place. Producing these items still contributes to CO2 emissions, toxic pollution and other forms of waste. The Amsterdam Economic Board aims to close this loop by connecting waste streams to businesses. 

Regional Heat Network

Many manufacturing processes create heat, which is usually disposed of as a waste product via water or air. The Amsterdam Economic Board have enlisted a group of 32 government agencies, energy companies and heat producers to redirect this heat to homes.

In Amsterdam’s Houthaven district, a new school and residential buildings will be heated using this network and cooled with water from the River IJ. Every home in the community will emit 80% less CO2 than apartments using a conventional boiler and air conditioning system. 

The Sanquin blood bank has connected with Waternet (Amsterdam water company) to also use cold energy from drinking water during the winter months. This will initially be stored as thermal energy and used in Sanquins pharmaceutical processes. They expect to extract 20,000 gigajoules of energy in the first few years. There is also an expectation that money and energy will be saved by households, as the process raises the drinking water temperature and users will need less energy to heat water in the home.

Smart Grid

One of the original Amsterdam Smart City schemes, the smart grid focuses on the storage and reclamation of surplus energy. In collaboration with the EU’s City-Zen project, solar panels were installed across the city to collect energy throughout the day. However, once their batteries are at capacity, no more electricity can be stored, and precious daylight wasted. To increase capacity would involve expensive investment in infrastructure.

The winning solution at Appsterdam, a hackathon organised by the city, was to use electric car batteries as storage. This creates a temporary ‘virtual power plant’ while the government builds a larger depository. A smart grid would also allow solar panel owners to sell their surplus energy back to the provider using a smart meter platform. So each solar panel is used to its full potential, and there is always somewhere available to store the energy generated.

Credit: Amsterdam Smart City

PUMA – Urban Mining

PUMA is a partnership between researchers from Leiden University, Delft University of Technology, the Waag Society and Metabolic. The research programme aimed to develop the idea of urban mines and to create a geological map of Amsterdam to indicate the presence of certain metals (e.g. copper). The PUMA team hope to create a database of buildings in the city and their material composition, so there is a possibility for mining these resources in the future.

Credit: Waag SocietyLiving Lab


The 2016 winner of Europe’s Capital of Innovation Award, Amsterdam is often described as a ‘living lab’. Buiksloterham, to the North, is the best example of a user-centered, open-innovation ecosystem. 

Formerly home to many manufacturing ventures including an aeroplane factory, oil laboratory and shipbuilding yard, Buiksloterham was earmarked for private development until the 2008 economic crash. Unable to finance the construction themselves, the city opened the area to sustainable businesses and residents who wanted to self-build their own eco-friendly homes. The waterfront location opposite Centraal Station is now littered with startups, circular businesses and new housing.

De Ceuvel

De Ceuvel was built on the site of an old shipbuilding yard and is almost entirely circular. The land had been heavily polluted, so plants were chosen that will naturally detoxify the ground by the end of the 10-year lease.

In the meantime, office workspaces have been built on elevated platforms and using upcycled houseboats that were no longer in use. There is also a cafe and restaurant built from repurposed wood and outdoor seating made recycled boats and other bits and pieces (for when the summer weather arrives). There are also:

  • Compost toilets, as the polluted land prevented digging for a sewage system
  • Heat exchangers, to capture 60% of the heat that leaves the office boats and recirculate it
  • Helophyte filters, to process wastewater
  • Solar panels that produce 36,000 kWh of power annually
  • A struvite reactor, to create fertiliser from organic waste
  • And an aquaponics greenhouse for producing fish and vegetables


What’s Next For Circular Amsterdam?

The EU, Netherlands government and the Amsterdam municipality all run schemes and incentives to encourage innovation in the circular economy. For example, van Plestik is a company based in the Buiksloterham community. They have created a 3D printer that can use mixed and impure plastics to upcycle waste into furniture and other products. When you consider conventional 3D printers have to use plastic that must be refined back to nearly pure ‘virgin’ form, this is a significant milestone. With help, the startup’s journey in just a few months went like this:

  • The creators started in early 2016 by researching into printing with recycled plastic by collaborating with Hogeschool van Amsterdam and CRE8, who are experts in 3D printing and urban fabrication
  • By May of that year, the project was a finalist in the Climate Launchpad Competition, run by the EU’s main climate innovation initiative. The scheme provided them with a 4-day workshop process alongside experts who could accelerate their business
  • In September 2016 they were selected for the Startup in Residence Amsterdam program and were awarded 5 months of weekly training to grow their company

van Plestik have now built their first working printer and in June 2017 won the ‘Amsterdammers, Make Your City’ prize to further develop their circular recycling project.


The next phase for the Amsterdam Economic Board is to make a Circular Data Platform which will combine all of the research, businesses and systems created already in one place, similar to the City Data platform for the Smart City. The primary purpose of this will be to store data about resource and waste flows in Amsterdam, to ensure the city can make the most efficient use of each resource. The platform will also be a place where businesses and citizens can gather and share data, discuss sustainability strategies and advise those who want to reduce their environmental impact and implement circular strategies. 

An example of this is Instock, a restaurant in Amsterdam that uses food products that would otherwise go to waste. It relies on waste streams from Albert Heijn supermarkets but hopes to find other suppliers via the platform.

The final goal of a Circular Data Platform is to provide every material with a passport, so supplies of raw materials are not lost to landfill sites and other low-value waste disposal methods. At the same time, the Amsterdam municipality will keep running events like the Circular Creation Challenge, to encourage continued innovation to move towards a complete circular economy.

Lauren Macpherson
Lauren Macpherson Director of Content, Eli5

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