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To unlock a Circular Economy in 2021, we need trust

Climate change has such a tremendous impact on the water sector that it is in our interest to contribute to adaptation and mitigation, working across different industries and sharing expertise. We are also learning that greater trust can be achieved between the water sector and the public through consultation, and greater trust can, in turn, help to facilitate the implementation of innovations. Can we make these advancements across sectors, achieve Sustainable Development Goals and create this circular economy by 2030? The answer is “Let’s go for this, let’s aim high”. Across Europe, we see excellent examples related to water reuse, use of alternative sources, recovery of energy like biogas and heat, and the recovery of nutrients from wastewater. The next step would be to connect the water sector with others, stimulating a circular ecosystem so that water and resources can be exchanged seamlessly.

Water sector can think differently

Our team at KWR is very excited to be co-ordinating the NextGen project, which includes piloting 10 full-scale demonstration cases in eight EU member states to define the next generation of water systems and solutions. One example is the Athens Urban Tree Nursery project, which extracts, treats and reuses wastewater for irrigation and biosolids for composting at the point of demand. This reduces the demand from the centralised treatment plant. Elsewhere, here in the Netherlands, AquaMinerals orchestrates and recovers materials from wastewater and acts as a brokerage company to end-users through an innovative nationwide business model. This organisation looked for market needs as a starting point. It found out which resources were needed first, in effect defining the demand before providing the supply. As a result, resources are recovered from water utilities’ treatment plants to the specifications required. It’s a different way of thinking.

Public trust is vital

While I am frustrated at how markets and economics can hold up the green recovery, it’s exciting to see how public involvement could speed up a positive change. The assumption is that the public is not in favour of drinking water created from wastewater because of the perceived “yuck-factor”. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. It depends on how you organise and communicate initiatives, and in the current situation, we already reuse de facto. If you have a treatment facility for wastewater and discharge to the river, then 100 meters further upstream, you collect and treat it to drinking water standards. The only difference is that the river is taken out of the equation. If people understand this process, their attitudes change and then it is the trust in organisations and governmental agencies that becomes important. If people trust, they are much more willing to accept a new idea. This needs to be underpinned with a robust regulatory framework to promote safety and security. While I am not optimistic that a Circular Economy will be achieved globally by 2030, I am sure the examples referenced above are positive examples to demonstrate significant progress is being made with water in a circular economy. If we are to at least get closer to the 2030 goal, then knowledge sharing in 2021 from these successes, across sectors, will be pivotal.

Frijns Jos

Jos Frijns, Resilience Management & Governance team leader at KWR.