Many conceive constructing a circular economy as key to supporting the United Nations’ values of environmental sustainability, supply security, climate goals, and several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs Sustainable Development Goals ) . Although we expect that the transition towards a circular economy will help solve many disparate problems, circularity is not necessarily identical or even consistent with safety and/ or sustainability. A good place to start the transition to a sustainable, safer and healthier economy, is in research and development (R&D), as this offers ample opportunities for circular design that respects our planetary boundaries.
Integrated assessment of sustainability, safety and health
A circular economy offers opportunities, but also entails risks. For example, the re-use of raw materials can lead to risks to health or the environment. An example of this is the recycling of polystyrene foam treated with - now banned - flame-retardants. The question is whether reuse is an option and, if so, how.
Within the SPR Strategic Programme RIVM theme "Circular Economy", RIVM investigates how circular design can also be safe and healthy and how new products can be designed in such a way that they can be used in a practical as well as circular way.
A stronger focus on safety, health and sustainability is needed in designing circular products. When basic resources are re-used in new products, health risks should be avoided. Recycling is not sustainable if it requires a lot of energy or leads to the emission of harmful substances.
Four lines of research
The SPR Circular Economy programme consists of four interrelated issues that span the entire chain, from production to waste processing. The programme focuses on both short-cycle and long-cycle processes. Short-cycle processes include, for example, plastic packaging materials for food, and long-cycle processes include, for example, building materials such as insulation materials and plastic window frames.
The four research lines are:
1. Safe and sustainable design
2. Circular consumption (products and services)
3. Clean recycling
4. Indicators and monitoring
The shift from 'safe by design' to 'sustainable by design'
The best chance of achieving circularity is if safety and sustainability are already at the forefront of product design. The design can already take into account the longest possible lifespan and the highest possible value reuse of a product. RIVM has a unique combination of expertise in the areas of health, safety and sustainability and considerable experience with the concept ‘safe by design'. For example, the early assessment of nanomaterials and identifying options for substituting unsafe synthetic substances or materials with safer bio-based variants. The challenge is to broaden the concept ‘safe by design’ into 'sustainable by design'.
Collaboration with designers
To ensure that 'sustainable by design' is also applicable in practice, RIVM wants to collaborate with circular designers in this area. This way, it is possible to test the scientific calculation models and instruments in the actual practice of design and production.
In addition to a circular design, it is also important to look at the purchase, use and disposal of products, and the use of services (consumption). Circular consumption is about minimising the number of products purchased, using purchased products for as long as possible, and reducing waste. Examples include second-hand cars and refurbished mobile phones. RIVM will explore whether, and if so, what role it could play in fostering circular consumption.
Recycling can pose risks to health, the environment or both
As a society, we are dealing with an enormous legacy of products and materials that contain many substances of concern. The reuse of these products and materials can entail risks for health , the environment or both. This is a dilemma for a circular economy because the goal of a circular economy is to reduce environmental pressure but in a safe way.
This dilemma also applies to the granting of permits for the processing and disposal of waste: which substances or products may or may not be reused and how. RIVM has drawn up an assessment framework for this, in which the risks and benefits of reuse are clearly juxtaposed and can thus be weighed up against each other.
A good example of this is the recycling of cadmium-containing PVC for pipes. The use of a double-walled pipe means that the substances of concern present in PVC cannot come into contact with the environment.
Monitoring and scenarios
It is important to monitor the transition progress of the circular economy. RIVM is involved in various monitoring systems at the national, regional and sectoral level.
From another perspective: what is the maximum exposure limit for the living environment, (regional, national and international), or what is the maximum exposure limit for an individual, for example, in the labour situation. RIVM will explore whether monitoring systems can be linked to absolute limits and, if so, how. In addition, RIVM wants to develop scenarios to assess trends and their integral impact. For example, monitoring can help to formulate policy aimed at a circular economy and thus contribute to the sustainable development objectives of the United Nations.
For the SPR theme "Circular Economy", RIVM carries out the following three studies:
RIVM contributes to the transition towards a sustainable, safe and healthy circular economy by stimulating the implementation of sustainable and safe circular design. RIVM also supports its technical implementation with knowledge where necessary.
Circularity, safety and sustainability do not necessarily coincide in a circular economy. The research and development phases of substances, processes and products (research & development, R&D) are a starting point for realising the transition to a circular economy. It is a good time to consider sustainability and safety when deciding whether to continue a development. The emphasis is now mainly on technological aspects and market opportunities.
To make a circular design safe and sustainable, it must be usable in practice. That is why several case studies are at the heart of this project. Based on field analysis, we will develop one or more scenarios to align circular design with the objectives for safety and sustainability. We will test the scenarios in collaboration with a broad group of stakeholders. We will also investigate the relevant legal context and carry out integrated assessments of these scenarios
Stakeholder networks will be set up to exchange knowledge, map (legal) frameworks, produce publications that are accessible to the public, and hold workshops, whereby all parties work together on safe and sustainable assessment methods for circular design.
In support of strategic decision-making for the transition to a circular economy, RIVM aims to calculate the impact of realistic solution scenarios at the micro and macro level and to interpret the relationship between these levels.
When choosing circular measures, insight is needed into whether they are also safe and sustainable. For this purpose, instruments are available for the micro-scale, such as the effect when one kilogram of cotton is replaced by recycled cotton. There are also instruments for the macro-scale, such as how much recycled cotton is used in the Netherlands? Combining the two will lead to new insights.
It is important to define realistic solutions. It is also important to calculate the effect of solutions on the quality of material flows at the macro level. Finally, it is important to be able to link the results to policy goals at various levels, such as the climate goals of the Netherlands and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Plastics is a case study for this. We make an overview of possible solutions to bottlenecks that hinder the transition to a circular economy as far as plastics are concerned. The consequences of these solutions for people and the environment (sustainability, safety and health) will be calculated. These lessons probably apply to more types of material. In addition, a basis will be laid for including quality in macro-analysis.
RIVM and its partners, such as the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), will learn how to combine social science research methods with environmental science approaches.
RIVM wants to gain insight into the possible and desired roles that we can play to stimulate circular consumption. This requires research into the values, perceptions, considerations and expectations of users. This applies in particular to consumers and suppliers. And what steps are needed to realise the possible and desired roles?
In the transition to a circular economy, RIVM is an independent and reliable knowledge supplier and trusted advisor to governments, businesses and citizens. However, RIVM also wants to be a 'driving force' to ensure that the transition takes place. Which role RIVM can best play in encouraging consumers to make more circular choices, depends on the needs and wishes of the target group and commissioners, RIVM’s possibilities, already existing activities, and other stakeholders in this dossier.
The project starts with an analysis of the term circular consumption, the activities that are already being developed in this area in other organisations, and the need to stimulate circular consumption. This will be done using a literature scan and interviews with experts internally and other stakeholders involved in stimulating circular consumption. Different scenarios are then developed on how circular consumption could develop in the future and what the role of the RIVM could be in this. Based on this exercise, the needs of consumers, and how they could be involved in circular consumption are assessed for two cases. Based on this input, several possible roles for RIVM will be formulated, which are tested at RIVM and commissioners' premises.
This project also falls under the SPR Strategic Programme RIVM supporting theme "Perception and behaviour".