Year Review 2021

Collaborating on the circular water economy for a sustainable and climate-proof Europe

Circular water in the city

KWR leads two big European projects that should point the way towards a circular water economy and greater sustainability and climate-proofness. To realise circular solutions within ULTIMATE and NextGen, collaboration between Water Authorities, the water sector and practically all other sectors is crucial – and don’t forget citizen involvement! KWR has decades of practical experience with bringing together and connecting diverse partners.

KWR creates more value and more results through successful collaborations with partners in the water sector, the academic world and research organisations. Co-creation and knowledge sharing have been integral components of the KWR approach, since the first initiative – in 1952 – for the successful Joint Research Programme of KWR and the drinking water utilities.

Circular water economy

KWR leads two four-year European collaboration projects within the Horizon 2020 programme. The ULTIMATE and NextGen projects study how Europe can shift more quickly from a linear water cycle (from production, to consumption and to discharge) to a circular water economy. Given the pressure of climate change, free-market competition and environmental degradation, this shift is of course increasingly urgent, and its objective is to make European society as a whole more climate-proof.

Industry and water sector

The ULTIMATE project, which was launched in 2020, stands for a symbiosis between industry and the water sector for a smarter water society. The objective is to create economic value and to enhance the sustainability of industrial production, by extracting and reusing raw materials from the water cycle. Wastewater is therefore not simply a means of discharging unwanted matter, but a stream containing valuable raw materials, including, of course, the water itself, but also energy and resources. ULTIMATE has nine large-scale demonstration sites, which are spread over Europe and encompass the agro-food, beverages, (petro) chemicals and biotechnology sectors. At the sites, 27 partners work for instance on the reuse of water in greenhouse horticulture (the Netherlands), recovery of pollutants from process water from fruit-juice production (Greece), biogas generation from the wastewater of olive-oil production (Israel), wastewater reuse and nutrient mining at the Kalundborg biotech symbiosis complex (Denmark), and the recovery and reuse of water at an industrial complex (Italy). From wastewater processors to whisky distillers, these stakeholders work closely with knowledge providers in establishing innovative local, circular economies.

Governance models

Gerard van den Berg, leader of KWR’s Innovation & Valorisation team, and the coordinator of ULTIMATE: ‘The lessons we learn from the nine demo projects in ULTIMATE will lead to new developments and implementations, with innovations in technology, business development and governance models. I see ULTIMATE as a process in which collaboration leads to co-creation, knowledge transfer and the seizing of new opportunities. We want to stimulate the coupled industrial and research partners to remain in close contact even after the project is concluded, and keep on learning from each other’s experiences. The nine demo projects respond to the worldwide demand for concrete circular water applications. ULTIMATE’s solutions can also be applied under other local conditions, and within other cultures and forms of investment. We might even be able to make the demo sites available as much-needed testbeds.’

Circular solutions for the water sector

NextGen was started in 2018 and brings together 30 organisations for the purpose of proposing technological, economic and management solutions for water in the circular economy. The partners aim to promote the circular economy by unlocking various water-embedded resources – water, energy and materials – and thereby develop local, robust and transparent markets for these resources. At ten large-scale sites across Europe, NextGen demonstrates innovative circular water solutions in practice, and collects information on the conditions for successful application and upscaling. The projects are varied, ranging from an innovative masterplan for water and energy management for a sustainable new district in Bristol, to the recovery of carbon, and nitrogenous and phosphatic materials from a brewery’s wastewater in Berkel-Enschot, the reuse of water from a tree nursery in Athens, or agricultural irrigation in the Costa Brava, where seasonal water shortages and salinisation are a problem. Cross-fertilisation between these demonstration sites will contribute further to an EU Roadmap to support the wider uptake of circular solutions in the water sector.


Here, too, it is very important to engage all of the stakeholders in the projects. Jos Frijns, leader of KWR’s Resilience Management & Governance team and NextGen coordinator: ‘By building bridges between science and practice, we can ensure that water plays a crucial facilitating role in the water-energy-food triad. This will permit the partners to rethink and redesign material streams, processes and business models, including governance structures and collaborations with stakeholders. And without forgetting citizen involvement and consultation. By properly and transparently informing citizens, and taking their ideas and concerns into account, we build public trust in new solutions. That trust is crucial to bringing about the needed circular applications and markets. Clearer regulations, with regard to health risks for example, further reinforce this trust, bringing a more sustainable and more climate-proof Europe closer.’