Nicky Pouw
Dan-CE 5
The circular economy (un)limited

‘Step out of your comfort zone’

The world needs a transition of the mind, experts said at The Circular Economy (Un)Limited conference on December 8, 2023. They called for a new way of thinking about economic growth and the impact of research. And they stressed the need for action and for cooperation.

With the Dutch Academic Network on the Circular Economy (DAN-CE) and Het Groene Brein we organized  DAN-CE 5, to exchange visions about a circular economy. “The current national and international political climate gives reason for concern,” said moderator Nicky Pouw, (University of Amsterdam).  Four keynote speakers shared their thoughts: scientific director of the LDE Centre of Sustainability, Arnold Tukker, chief economist at Triodos Bank, Hans Stegeman, assistant professor of the Institute of Environmental Studies of the VU Amsterdam, Marthe Wens, and Robert Tekke, circular transition manager for the province of South Holland. This was follow by workshops. 

hans stegeman


Hans Stegeman, who is also columnist for het Financieel Dagblad, started by pointing out some misconceptions about economic growth. He said economic growth doesn’t really improve welfare or reduce inequality and poverty. “Of course, people in emerging markets need food and a roof above their heads, but the growth does not benefit the people there,” he said.

Stegeman calls for de-growth, which requires a new way of thinking. “People laugh when I ask them for the business model of not doing anything. But not doing anything is the essence of circular economy. Then we can make the biggest difference.” Society needs to focus on re-using and recycling instead of an ownership of everything we buy, he said.

Answering a question from the audience Stegeman said markets can still play a role in a circular economy, but they need to focus on innovating useful economic activities rather than maximizing profits. As an example he mentioned cheaply produced, low quality fast fashion. “Fast fashion has no place in a circular society. (…) On a micro level profit incentives are the same as economic growth on a macro level,” he said.




Arnold Tukker gave an overview of the sustainability plans and green policy ideas he encountered during his long career as a scientist. With the exception of small achievements, such as the landfill tax, the concrete results are disappointing. There is too much debate and discussion. In 1994 countries decided there was a need for a ten year program on sustainable consumption and production. It took another ten years for the countries to agree about the framework for the program.

“We have become very good at inventing new concepts and new narratives to mobilise a lot of people, only to see a postponement to the next election. I think we have learned enough to decide about a policy. The real issue is how will we find the strength to do that,” Tukker said.

Explaining his view to the audience Tukker said that research and science remain relevant in the transition towards a circular economy. “I’m only warning that we have to accept our own limitations. Don’t think that by doing transdisciplinary research, you are going to change the world,” said Tukker, the scientific director of the LDE Centre for Sustainability and professor of Industrial Ecology at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML).




Marthe Wens, assistant professor at the institute for environmental studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, shared recent data about climate change. “Looking at air temperatures, sea surface temperatures, sea ice, we can see that everything is off the charts. We are also outside the safe space for biosphere,” she said. One of the few good values is the level of ozone. “Why? Because we phased out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). We have to do the same with fossil fuels,” she said.

Wens is active for Scientists Rebellion, a movement that is trying to make people aware of inconsistent polities. “Why do we still allow private jets? Why do we host super yachts in Amsterdam? Why are we subsidiing fossil fuels? We are trying to highlight this through civil disobedience,” she said. People don’t always agree with civil disobedience by climate activists and sometimes consider them dangerous radicals, but the real dangerous radicals are countries that increase fossil fuel usage, she said.

Wens asked the audience to make sure that the message about climate change reaches the people who need to hear it. It’s a responsibility, especially of scientists. “If we all stay in our comfort zone, we are not achieving our goals. Maybe you are not ready to get out on the street, but all contributions help. Lobbying, writing letters,” said Wens answering questions.




Circular thinking
Robert Tekke, circular transition manager for province of South Holland, shared the challenges of the regional government towards a circular society. The province helps political parties to include circular thinking in government plans and also establishes networks with entrepreneurs, civil servants and residents of various municipalities. “We have to cooperate with entrepreneurs, with activists and with scientists. Without them we can’t change the system,” he said.

The province is trying to include circular thinking into various policy areas, such as waste management, agriculture and infrastructure. As an example he mentioned plans to build a road. To improve mobility it might be difficult to completely cancel plans for a new road, but it is possible to consider other materials for the construction.

Tekke said he actively uses transition theories. “Transition theories help people to change their mindset. Disruption, radical change and changing the system are terms that cause discomfort. We need those theories to discuss the change and show there is a way to achieve our goals,” he said.

Arnold Tukker


During the panel discussion the four speakers repeated that a change of mindset is the most important condition for a circular economy. Hans Stegeman stressed the importance of saying the right thing at the right time. Guests at a barbecue might not listen to the message that eating meat is bad for the climate, but they will be interested if they hear a plant-based diet is cheaper and healthier.

“Our mistake is that we too often try to convince people by saying: the research says so. But that is not an argument for many people,” Stegeman said. Marthe Wens added the need to target false stories and promotions. People are influenced by the stories they see. Most people are aware that a plant-based diet is healthier, but the meat industry is lobbying against that, she said.

The audience also asked about the possibility to use emerging markets as a starting point for the circular economy and green growth rather than change the mindset of developed economies. Arnold Tukker had his doubts. Developed countries can’t ask emerging markets to implement what they failed to do. Wens said it is also possible to ask people in emerging markets what they want and which knowledge they have. Developed might also learn a valuable lesson from that.

Have a look on the whole program