copy the linklink copied!2. Assessing and unlocking the circular economy in Groningen, Netherlands

This chapter details the main components of the existing circular economy strategies and initiatives promoted by the Dutch Government, the Northern Netherlands region, the provinces and the city of Groningen, Netherlands. The chapter also identifies actors, policies and co-operation tools across urban and rural areas that can foster the circular economy. Finally, it describes the main challenges that the city of Groningen is facing in its transition from a linear to a circular economy.


copy the linklink copied!An ongoing agenda on the circular economy at the national level

In 2016, the Dutch national government set a circular economy strategy, which provides goals, inspiration and ambitions to local governments. The aim of the national strategy is to achieve a waste-free economy by 2050. It outlines a vision of a future-proof, sustainable economy for current and future generations. According to the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (Nederlandse Organisatie voor toegepastnatuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek, TNO), the circular economy can generate EUR 7.3 billion within the sectors involved and up to 54 000 jobs, while the use of raw material can be reduced of 100 megatonnes (one-quarter of the Dutch annual import of raw material). The strategy is based on five priorities: biomass and food; plastics; the manufacturing industry; the construction sector; and consumer goods. Adequate regulation, finance and knowledge will help achieve the objective of no waste by 2050. This implies making the best use of raw material, replacing fossil-based materials with sustainable and renewable ones and designing products that can last in time (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment/Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2016[1]).

The national government has also made available funds to implement circular economy projects. Funds are linked to the envelope of EUR 300 million that the government makes available annually for climate-related actions. Subnational governments have access to this envelope. At the same time, the Ministry of Infrastructure has allocated EUR 40 million to fund circular economy-related projects in 2019 and 2020, while national regional strategies and SDG implementation programmes also provide financial opportunities to promote the circular economy transition (Netherlands Enterprise Agency, 2019[2]). Businesses and local governments can present projects eligible for national subsidies at the National Enterprise Agency (Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland), although conditions for applying are still to be clarified.

copy the linklink copied!Circular initiatives at the subnational level

The Northern Netherlands region carried out a material flow analysis to identify priority areas for the circular economy. The Northern Netherlands region is one of the six top European regions in the bio-based economy according to the European Union (EC, 2019[3]). About 70% of the land in the region is devoted to agricultural production. As such, there is a high likelihood of transforming agricultural waste into biomass. In 2018, Northern Netherlands commissioned a material flow analysis to better understand the input and output of materials within the region. Four sectors were identified as key for the circular economy: construction, waste, chemistry and agro-food (Metabolic, 2018[4]). The study concluded that, although the perspectives for a circular economy in the three northern provinces, including Groningen, are favourable, there are financial and regulatory bottlenecks to take into account, which are outside the direct sphere of influence of the provinces and the municipalities. Therefore, co-ordination with the national government is needed.

Each province made steps towards the circular economy transition. The province of Friesland launched Circular Friesland, an association of public and private partners, to put in place a number of projects within five main sectors: circular agriculture, circular plastic, organic waste streams, construction and saline agriculture. In collaboration with the national government and the Waste Fund, the province of Friesland launched in 2018 a national test centre for plastics, in order to improve techniques of sorting, recycling and reusing plastic packaging. The centre organises awareness-raising activities on the circular economy. The province of Drenthe plans to use organic materials for plastic production, create a research institution focused on geothermal heating and develop greener energy sources as hydrogen and biogas. The province of Groningen focuses on green chemistry and energy in combination with agro-industry for a future circular economy strategy. Each province could maximise efforts and impacts by being aware of initiatives in other provinces, co-ordinating efforts and learning from one another. Inhibiting factors for collaboration can be related to different political priorities.

copy the linklink copied!Circular economy initiatives in Groningen, Netherlands

The City Council proposal for a Circular Groningen identified three priority areas. In 2018, the council instructed the board to develop a sustainable and circular vision for the city, by co-ordinating the already existing initiatives linked to the circular economy. It identified three priority areas (Groningen Municipality, 2018[5]):

  • Public procurement: As a means to influence the business community towards circular practices, for example in service provision and in the building sector.

  • Waste: As an opportunity to re-think the processing of the waste streams towards increased separation and recycling, jointly with the termination of the contract with the waste company in 2022 and with the objective of the city to become waste neutral1 by 2030.

  • Knowledge: To establish connections with knowledge networks and create platforms amongst the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

Referring to the three priority areas identified by the municipal council, a series of existing and planned activities focus on public procurement, waste and knowledge. They are reported in Table 2.1.

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Table 2.1. Circular economy activities in Groningen, Netherlands





Knowledge and awareness-raising


Awareness campaign challenging 100 households to live 100% waste-free for 100 days. Around 200 households joined. The local television channel followed the participants in a series of programmes.

Delivered in 2017

Dismissed industrial area as experimentation space

Former sugar factory temporarily hosting 50 initiatives and businesses as a playground for the circular economy.


The Food Battle

Challenge inviting inhabitants to reduce food waste food. Around 250 households joined.

Delivered in 2017


Circular IQ

An online software application for collaboration, data monitoring and analysis that uses simple data to support circular decision-making. It is scheduled to be used for Green Public Procurement.

Not yet in use

Green Public Procurement

Large scale purchase of circular products used by the municipality in public spaces (e.g. reused materials for constructing bridges decks, waterway timbering and highway fences built using recycled material, waste bins and containers made of circular plastic).


Purchasing coffee machines, infrastructure projects following circular principles (e.g. reusing, leasing).


Green tender office furniture

Replacement of office furniture over ten years in the whole municipality.


Green Public Procurement training

Eight interactive workshops for purchasing in a circular way: from request and procedure, to measuring and weighing criteria to business models.

Delivered in 2018


Circular Economy Hub

Incubator space for circular small businesses and start-ups, information centre, repair hub and second-hand shops next to the waste delivery station.


Groningen designs (Groningen Ontwerpt)

Sustainable design to reuse waste streams: new products from waste and residual materials for sale in seven shops in Groningen.

Delivered in 2018


Repair cafes; collection of reusable items and paint for second-hand shops.


Waste management


Inclusion of circular criteria for waste processing for the new waste management concession after the year 2022.


Waste sorting facility

Waste sorting facility operated by the municipality with the highest possible resource recovery rate and the production of sustainable energy such as green gas.

Ongoing since 1988

Source: OECD (2019[6]) OECD Survey on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions and Interviews held in the city of Groningen in February 2019.

The city aims to implement Green Public Procurement. City employees are being trained to make this happen through dedicated circular procurement workshops. Green public procurement is being applied to the purchase of a 10-year service of refurbished furniture for the municipality, currently in the tender phase. Since 2018, all public plastic bins must be made of recycled plastics, as established by public procurement requisites.

The city set the goal of becoming waste neutral by 2030, following circular economy principles. Today, 40% of waste is incinerated in Groningen. The city wants to take that rate down to zero by 2030. The goals by 2020 are the following: a maximum of 150 kg of waste for incineration per inhabitant and 65% of waste separated for reuse (100% by 2030). An awareness campaign to communicate regularly on the available options for the separation of waste and to prevent waste production has been put in place. A “circular innovation hub” is scheduled to be developed. The hub will host a bulky waste depot for receiving large reusable household goods (furniture, electrical goods and garden cuttings, among others). The aim is to foster high-end reuse of raw materials such as metal, plastics, beverage cartons and organic waste. A repair café and second-hand shops are also planned to be included in the hub. In addition, an information centre, located in the circular innovation hub, would identify key stakeholders for circular economy activities, possible launching customers and involve designers for product solutions and new business models (Groningen Municipality, 2019[7]).

The city of Groningen supports small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the transition towards a circular economy. In 2019, the municipality initiated the “Front Runner Project” (Koploperproject) to support SMEs in the implementation of more sustainable and circular business models. During a year, expert advisors produce a baseline measurement analysis of the company; determine its environmental performance and the CO2 footprint, while defining a “sustainability profile”. Each company establishes an action plan and a communication strategy based on the recommendations received. The project foresees networking events to promote the exchange of experiences and creates a permanent network among members. Between 8 and 15 companies and SMEs are currently taking part in the project alongside 6 municipalities (Hogeland, Groningen, Oldambt, Stadskanaal, Westerkwartier, Westerwolde), the province of Groningen, co-operatives, banks and educational institutions. Since 2015, six projects have been carried out in the province of Groningen with around 65 participants, with 2 special projects on village houses and the food chain (Koploperproject, 2019[8]).

copy the linklink copied!The analytical framework

The analytical framework used in this report is based on three dimensions that help to identify tailored solutions for cities and regions willing to transition from a linear to a circular economy (Figure 2.1):

  • The level of advancement of cities and regions in the transition to a circular economy: Advanced, In progress, Newcomers.

  • Tools and instruments for the transition according to the 3Ps Framework: People, Policies and Places.

  • Roles of cities and regions to promote, facilitate and enable the circular economy.

According to the level of advancement towards the transition to a circular economy, it is possible to identify three clusters of cities and regions:

  • Advanced: Cities and regions that have developed and put in place circular economy strategies. These cities show strong innovative initiatives, as well as a firm political will in favour of a circular economy. An important future priority for these cities would be to build metrics for measuring progress and evaluating their policies in place. Brussels and the Flanders region (Belgium), Paris (France), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and London (United Kingdom) belong to this cluster.

  • In progress: Cities “in progress” are those that are taking actions towards the circular economy, following ad hoc initiatives. Cities or regions in this cluster have recently set specific programmes on the circular economy and/or are starting their implementation. They are less advanced compared to the pioneers, but they have already taken key steps towards a circular economy. This is the case of Rotterdam (Netherlands), the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona (Spain) and Glasgow (United Kingdom), amongst others.

  • Newcomers: Cities in this cluster recognise the relevance and potential of the circular economy and they are exploring options for implementation. These cities have already achieved good results in waste recycling levels (Oslo, Norway); water-reuse (Granada, Spain); have signed political commitments to advance towards a circular economy (Milan and Prato, Italy); are starting to develop a circular economy strategy (Valladolid, Spain; Umeå, Sweden); or have included the circular economy in broader policy plans (Helsinki and Oulu, Finland). These cities see in the circular economy a means for reducing environmental impacts in cities while increasing attractiveness and competitiveness. The city of Groningen is included in this cluster.

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Figure 2.1. OECD analytical framework: Level of advancement, tools and roles
Figure 2.1. OECD analytical framework: Level of advancement, tools and roles

Source: OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Each city and region, regardless of their level of advancement, can identify the conditions needed to transition to a circular economy, making sure that people are engaged, policies are co-ordinated and that linkages across places are set to close the loops (3Ps Framework) (OECD, 2016[10]):

  • People: The circular economy is a shared responsibility across levels of government and stakeholders. As such, it is key to identify the actors that can play a role in the transition and allow the needed cultural shift towards different production and consumption pathways, new business and governance models. For example, the business sector can determine the shift towards new business models (e.g. renting, reusing, sharing, etc.). Citizens, on the other hand, make constant consumption choices and can influence production.

  • Policies: The circular economy requires a holistic and systemic approach that cuts across sectoral policies. As somebody’s waste can be a resource for somebody else, the circular economy provides the opportunity to foster complementarities across policies. The variety of actors, sectors and goals makes the circular economy systemic by nature. It implies a wide policy focus through integration across often siloed policies, from environmental, regional development, agricultural and industrial ones. Identifying these key sectors and possible synergies is the first step to avoid the implementation of fragmented projects over the short-medium run, due to the lack of a systemic approach.

  • Places: Cities and regions are not isolated ecosystems, but spaces for inflows and outflows of materials, resources and products, in connection with surrounding areas and beyond. Therefore, adopting a functional approach going beyond the administrative boundaries of cities is important for resource management and economic development. Linkages across urban and rural areas (e.g. related to bio-economy, agriculture and forest) are key to promote local production and recycling of organic residuals to be used in proximity of where they are produced, to avoid negative externalities due to transport. At the regional level, loops related to a series of economic activities (e.g. to the bio-economy) can be closed and slowed.

As a result and in accordance with predefined short-, medium- and long-term objectives, cities and regions can play a role as promoters, facilitators and enablers in the transition from a linear to a circular economy. In practice:

  • Cities can promote the circular economy as illustrated by the roadmaps and strategies set out in cities like Brussels (Belgium), Paris (France), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and London (United Kingdom). These strategies identified priorities, promoted a number of concrete projects and engaged stakeholders.

  • Cities can facilitate connections across business, citizens and levels of government. They help direct and facilitate contacts, inform about existing projects, provide soft and hard infrastructure for new circular businesses. The city of Phoenix (United States), for example, created together with Arizona State University a Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN) Incubator for accompanying businesses in the shift towards a circular economy. In 2017, the city of Paris, France, launched a circular economy incubator, hosting 19 start-ups.

  • Cities can enable the circular economy transition to happen by providing the appropriate governance and economic tools. Cities can set up incentives, catalyse funds, adapt regulations, etc. For example, the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) in London (United Kingdom) proposed to develop a venture capital fund, seeking private sector partners to join; the city of Amsterdam (Netherlands) created a revolving sustainability fund for businesses to pay back within 15 years with a very low interest rate.

This analytical framework applied to the case of Groningen, Netherlands, will identify the main opportunities and challenges (Chapter 2), as well as tailored policy recommendations to promote, facilitate and enable the circular economy (Chapter 3).

copy the linklink copied!People and firms: Towards a circular economy ecosystem

Government, business sector and universities could create a circular economy “ecosystem” to allow co-operation and knowledge building. In Groningen, representatives of the universities and the public and private sectors gather together in an organisation called “De Koepel”, which meets every three months to identify opportunities for business and collaboration. The meeting held in February 2019 discussed opportunities for a circular economy in Groningen. It concluded with the proposal of creating a circular economy “ecosystem” to allow co-operation and building knowledge, in the same way as for existing ecosystems for the digital economy, energy transition and healthy ageing.2 Indeed, there is a fertile environment for collaboration in Groningen. For example, the municipality of Groningen, the business association WEST and the province of Groningen co-operate within Campus Groningen, one of the biggest campuses in the Netherlands. Local authorities define the campus as a “model of co-operation” to promote innovation in the energy transition, artificial intelligence, health and, in the future, the circular economy.

The transition towards a circular economy is supported by various public, private and not-for-profit organisations. For example, the business association West, representing more than 300 SMEs and entrepreneurs, brings together SMEs working alongside the local government on waste, energy and bio-economy. These sectors are all relevant within the circular economy approach; therefore, specific initiatives to maximise resource efficiency, reuse resources and prevent waste generation are increasingly foreseen in the future. Private, public and not-for-profit sectors can receive support for building capacities and identifying opportunities for collaboration through the Northern Innovation Circular Economy (NICE) lab, which aims at speeding up the transition from a linear to a circular economy. This initiative gathers 18 organisations, including local governments, SMEs and knowledge institutes. Similarly, associations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are raising awareness on circular economy practices and implementing circular economy principles in the food and construction sectors (see section on policies).

The Circular Economy Club is a platform created by local retailers in 2018 to discuss common problems and solutions related to their business activities and following circular economy principles. The club can play a role in connecting the municipality with entrepreneurs and companies to develop a long-term circular economy city-wide vision. Stakeholders are organised in different thematic commissions. One of the commissions focuses on waste management and product distribution. The club is currently dealing with the problem of traffic caused by waste collection in the city centre for a large number of companies. It is trying to find solutions for an emission-free city in liaison with the Waste and Mobility Department of the Municipality.

copy the linklink copied!Policies: Identifying sectors holding potential for the circular economy

All sectors are concerned in a circular economy but some have higher potential. Often the circular economy in cities and regions is seen as a synonymous with municipal waste recycling but it is more than that. Cities and regions in their circular economy strategies have identified key sectors that show the greatest potential in terms of economic, social and environmental benefits. These sectors include built environment, food, water, and textile amongst others. According to local specificities, cities and regions are setting up circular economy initiatives for less traditional sectors, such as fashion and culture.

Making a sector “circular” implies rethinking value chains and production and consumption processes. “Circularity” implies that any output can be an input for something else within and across sectors. It aims to: make products and goods last longer through better design; produce products and goods using secondary and reusable materials and renewable energy while reducing atmospheric emissions; produce and distribute products locally and consume them in a conscious and sustainable manner; and transform waste into a resource (Figure 2.2).

Various sectors can be taken into account when it comes to fostering the transition from a linear to a circular economy in Groningen, Netherlands. According to the results of the OECD Survey on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions (OECD, 2019[6]), the municipality identified the following sectors as of interest for a circular economy strategy in Groningen: waste, mobility, water, energy, food and beverage, sanitation, biomass, construction and demolition and creative industry (Figure 2.3). Below, specific attention will be dedicated to those sectors that more prominently stand out from the discussion with various stakeholders in Groningen. This is key to establish the role of the “do-ers” (e.g. entrepreneurs, SMEs, private companies, CSOs, etc.) in the transition from a linear to a circular economy and foresee coherent policies for the future. Information on the sectors included in other cities’ and regions’ circular economy initiatives is presented in Table 2.2.

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Figure 2.2. Circularity within and across sectors
Figure 2.2. Circularity within and across sectors

Source: OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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Figure 2.3. Sectors of interest for a circular economy strategy in Groningen, Netherlands
Figure 2.3. Sectors of interest for a circular economy strategy in Groningen, Netherlands

Source: Own elaboration based on the city of Valladolid’s answers to the OECD (2019[6]) OECD Survey on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions.

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Table 2.2. Example of sectors included in circular economy initiatives in cities and regions




Construction and demolition

Land use and spatial planning

Food and beverage

Manufacturing industry


Water and sanitation





ICT sector



Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Amsterdam Circular 2020-25

Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) (Spain)

Circular Economy Promotion Programme AMB Circular (2019)

Flanders (Belgium)

Circular Flanders (2016)

Greater Porto Area (Portugal)

LIPOR's commitment to circular economy principles (2018)

Nantes (France)

Circular Economy Roadmap

North Karelia (Finland)

CIRCWASTE – Towards Circular Economy in North Karelia

Paris (France)

Circular Economy Plan of Paris 2017-20

Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Rotterdam Circularity Programme 2019-23

Scotland (United Kingdom)

Circular Glasgow

Tilburg (Netherlands)

Tilburg Circular Agenda 2019

Valladolid (Spain)

Valladolid Circular Economy Roadmap (2017-18)

Source: OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.


The city of Groningen is planning to become waste neutral by 2030. The municipality of Groningen is responsible for the municipal and household waste collection. Private companies collect industrial waste. Groningen’s household and municipal waste processing takes place at the treatment plant managed by Attero in the city of Wijster (separation and incineration) and Groningen (separation).3 Separated waste is treated for secondary material production and biomass is processed into biogas. There are different producers of biogas in the city (Attero, RWZI Garmerwolde, Stainkoeln and Suiker Unie) (CO₂ Monitor Groningen, 2018[11]). Today, the biogas production capacity has the potential to provide 17 000 homes with gas. During the summer, when temperatures are higher than 30°C, it could meet the green gas demand of the entire city. Suiker Unie provides 7 000 households with green gas generated from fermented sugar beet residues. Green gas producers call for energy taxes to foster green fuels. The city is also promoting waste prevention campaigns and challenges amongst citizens to reduce waste production (e.g. 100x100x100, Table 2.1). Further actions should be dedicated to the policy options for reducing and securing the safety of industrial and commercial waste. There is little or no incentive for separate collection of industrial waste and for organic collection from restaurants and bars in the city. However, a separate facility is in place for the collection of organic waste.


Minimising food waste and increasing local food production is part of current and future circular activities. The municipality launched “Food Battle Groningen” to raise awareness on reducing food waste (Table 2.1). Local not-for-profit organisations are taking the lead in this sector by pushing the demand towards local food consumption, reducing food waste and promoting urban agriculture. As such, the circular approach, whereby the overall food chain can reduce the production of waste from beginning to end, has the potential to benefit vulnerable social groups by creating job opportunities and engaging communities (Box 2.1). For example, the Toentje Foundation produces honey, food and beer in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Another example is the Reframe Project4 in the food chain, bringing together farmers, producers and government since 2015. The idea of the project is to reduce food waste by allocating food leftovers to potential customers as the hospital. The Regional Cooperative of Western Catering,5 created in 2013, aims to develop new business models rethinking food chains for the next generation of co-operative business and start-ups. Nevertheless, some regulatory and financial barriers inhibit these activities: from legal regulations, preventing the use of green areas for local food production to the difficulty in accessing funds, making it only possible to implement small initiatives thanks to private support.

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Box 2.1. Making the food sector circular: Examples from cities

By 2050, cities will consume 80% of food. A total of 2.9 billion tonnes are destined for cities annually (resulting in 0.5 billion tonnes wasted). According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019), cities can significantly influence the way food is grown, distributed and consumed, by ensuring environmentally sustainable cultivation and by fostering the interaction with producers in their peri-urban and rural surroundings. Moreover, achieving a regenerative food system in cities will entail an annual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent and the generation of annual benefits amounting to USD 2.7 trillion by 2050.

There are several examples of initiatives to make the food sector more circular in urban and rural areas. These initiatives focus on different aspects of the food sector dynamics, from reducing food waste (Ljubljana, Porto, Umeå), promoting urban agriculture (Brussels, Guelph, Paris), supporting local food production (Umeå), improving the co-ordination between urban and rural areas (Valladolid), incorporating restaurants and the hospitality activities into these efforts (Amsterdam, Umeå, Valladolid) or the production of organic fertilisers (Porto). For example, in Spain, Valladolid’s food strategy aims to improve the co-ordination across urban and rural areas and create employment opportunities whereby the city can act as an agro-incubator for responsible consumption and local production. The eco-market located in the city is the first step to providing city customers with locally grown products. The city of Toronto (Canada) put in place the “Urban Harvest” programme to help reduce food waste and benefit the broader community by collecting surplus fruits and vegetables from residents’ backyards and redistributing them to local food banks and programmes. Urban Harvest also provides opportunities to learn about preserving food through canning workshops.

Source: OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris; Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019[12])Cities and Circular Economy for Food (accessed on 30 April 2019).


There is an ongoing debate regarding energy transition, which can benefit the circular economy debate in Groningen. The energy sector plays an important role in production and consumption activities, in the way future infrastructure will be built and in connection with other sectors (e.g. waste). There is strong debate on the energy transition and the most suitable alternative sources of energy to respond to the demand. Hydrogen, solar energy, wind power, geothermal energy, aquathermy6 and biogas are alternative sources of energy, shaping, amongst others, new forms of mobility and transport, agriculture and building. There is no single solution to replace the amount of energy that has been provided by natural gas during the last 60 years and that will stop after the phasing out of natural gas production established by the national authorities by 2022 (Reuters, 2019[13]).

Innovation, knowledge and capacity building play an important role in applying circular principles to the energy sector. A combination of energy alternatives is foreseen by several stakeholders and local plans. The municipality is developing “energy district plans” to provide three energy alternatives to natural gas heating in all city neighbourhoods by 2035, based on a collective heating network, electric heating and hybrid schemes combining electricity and green gas (Groningen Municipality, 2019[14]). The New Energy Coalition, created in 2017, is a network formed by business, public sector and academia representatives that is committed to promote the transition to a sustainable energy system (Energy Coalition, 2019[15]). The coalition is building knowledge on the circular economy and its relation to the energy transition, as one of the pillars of the city. It fosters innovation by connecting knowledge institutions, entrepreneurs, social organisations and governments. The Energy Transition Centre is a public-private partnership led by the Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, the University of Groningen and the Energy Academy Europe that functions as a testbed for new sustainable energy technologies. Start-ups, students, scientists, businesses and public authorities share ideas and business models in an open innovation workspace collaborating to speed up the energy transition and strengthening the knowledge economy in the north of the Netherlands (EnTranCe, 2019[16]).

Building sector

The building sector has great potential to become circular. Groningen is the only city in the region where the population is projected to grow. As a consequence, during the next 20 years, a total of 20 000 new houses will be built, while those damaged by the earthquakes will have to be renovated. This is an opportunity to move from “business as usual” to a more circular approach, where materials from demolitions and secondary materials from construction can be used combined with energy and water efficiency in buildings. Newly built houses can be energy neutral as well as generating energy. Some examples of Cradle to Cradle (Box 2.2) as well as modular constructions called the New Approach (De Nieuwe Aanpak, DNA) can be found in Groningen (ABC2C, 2019[17]).

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Box 2.2. The Cradle to Cradle approach for the building sector

Cradle to Cradle is a design concept developed in the 1990s by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, which promotes the use of construction materials and products that are recyclable in order to respond to the challenges of waste reduction and health protection. To achieve this goal, this approach enables the design of products that can be reintroduced into new manufacturing processes after their use, adopting a different way of thinking about the design, materials and flows employed for product durability.

Since 2010, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute manages the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard, providing designers and manufacturers with information on product materials and manufacturing processes. It measures five key aspects: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. The product receives a grade in each category (basic, bronze, silver, gold or platinum). The product’s overall qualification is equal to the lowest grade received in any of the mentioned categories. This is as a way to incentivise continuous improvements in all categories.

Some cities have already made some progress in this area:

  • In 2018, the city and county of San Francisco adopted a new regulation requiring all carpet installed in city-funded construction projects to be of Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard. This initiative intends to address San Francisco’s priorities for sustainability and material health, including the avoidance of chemicals of concern, appropriate durability, carbon impact and the use of fibre and supporting materials that contain recycled content and are themselves recyclable.

  • In 2007, the city of Venlo (Netherlands) made a commitment whereby all new city buildings were to be designed by Cradle to Cradle principles and, as a result, the new city hall, built in 2016, was designed employing this method. In order to observe the benefits of the new building, measurements such as air quality and temperature were taken from the previous building and will be compared with the new one in a forthcoming comparative study. It has already been observed that the new building’s facade absorbs 30% of sulphur and nitrogen oxides from the building’s surroundings and in terms of economic benefits, the project is estimated to deliver a 12.5% return on investment by 2040.

Source: Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (2019[18]), Cradle to Cradle Certified™, (accessed on 30 April 2019); EPEA GmbH Website (2019[19]), Homepage, (accessed on 30 April 2019); OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

The value chain around the building sector implies a strong emphasis on design. Designers can help in the early stage of a circular economy strategy, identifying appropriate materials and making a link between demand and how people use resources. Circular building is different from sustainable building: the circular way of building consists of rethinking upstream and downstream processes to minimise waste production and maximise waste reuse. It also implies new forms of collaborations amongst designers, constructors, contractors and owners, looking at the life cycle from construction to demolition. There is a motivated community of designers in Groningen that can foster circular design. For contractors, there is a market place for reusing materials but data is lacking. The dataset Madaster aims to fill this gap, keeping track of the different material used in new and existing buildings through material passports (Box 2.3).

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Box 2.3. Potential reuse of materials through material passports

Material passports are digital sets of data describing defined characteristics of materials and components in products and systems that give them value for present use, recovery and reuse. These passports are based on Cradle-to-Cradle design. They can be introduced by clients and used by architects and contractors for renovation and construction projects.

They represent a tool for improving the transparency on the materials used during construction and renovation stages. Among several benefits, they are expected to avoid costs related to the investigation of dangerous materials before demolition and enhance better asset management of constructions, since public authorities will have clearer information about materials and potential reuse.

Some stakeholders are already developing and providing these passports:

  • The Dutch company Madaster is one of the companies providing digital material passports to real estate owners and property administrators.

  • The company SundaHus, founded in 1990 in Sweden, provides structured material data and consulting services for sustainable development in the construction and property sectors.

  • BAMB (Building As Material Banks), an EU Horizon 2020 project counting with partners from 7 European countries, has developed more than 300 digital material passports for products, materials and components.

With the objective of stimulating the reuse, the city of Amsterdam has introduced material passports as one of the main action points of its circular economy action agenda in 2016. With this in mind, one of the proposed actions consists of encouraging construction companies to use materials passports by offering discounts on plots. At a national level, the Dutch government has set up 2 investment measures to offer deductions (up to 75% of investment costs) to 310 eligible green investments, including material passports.

Source: Circle Economy/Fabric/TNO:Gemeente Amsterdam (2016[20]), Circular Amsterdam - A Vision and Action Agenda for the City and Metropolitan Area (accessed on 30 April 2019); Luscuere, L. (2016[21]), “Materials passports: Optimising value recovery from materials”,; Madaster (2019[22]), About Us, (accessed on 30 April 2019); Netherlands Enterprise Agency (2014[23]), Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland, (accessed on 11 February 2020); OECD (forthcoming[9]), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Urban mining can reduce raw materials extraction. Construction companies in Groningen highlight that the current regulation does not fully allow the reuse of wood. Historically, wood waste went to the landfill and nowadays is sent to incinerators. Instead, like other construction materials and under certain quality conditions, it could still be reused. As such, holding an open dialogue with companies on regulatory barriers can help find solutions. Circular Friesland, for example, is working with companies towards the constructions of the future, based on building and rebuilding energy-neutral houses and increasingly using secondary construction materials (Circulair Friesland Association, 2015[24]).

The idle capacity of buildings should also be considered for better use of resources. In the city as well as in the province, a number of disused buildings can be used as a testbed for circular economy experimentation or can have a second life, avoiding new constructions. Consumer behaviour is also changing the way spaces and buildings are used. Typically, with the increasing use of online shopping, high streets are rethinking their purpose. Empty buildings in the city centre can have an alternative use for social activities. A dataset of empty buildings can help to map these available spaces. In Groningen, a project to use the empty sugar factory aims to create a “zero-waste” neighbourhood (Box 2.4).

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Box 2.4. An urban regeneration project in Groningen, Netherlands

The old sugar factory in Groningen closed down in 2010. Since then, the centrally located 120 hectares have served as an experimentation space. Until 2030, the municipality declared the area under temporary development. Nowadays over 50 initiatives (e.g. projects related to creative industries, sustainable housing programmes, music festivals and shared workspace for entrepreneurs) are being carried out in the area. By 2030, the sugar factory will become a zero-waste neighbourhood with closed material flow. It will need to generate an energetic surplus to compensate for the old buildings in the city centre that cannot be made energy neutral. The energy will be distributed through a smart grid that will ensure co-ordination between supply and demand. The planned houses in the district will include rainwater management systems to produce clean water and extract nutrients and energy from wastewater. Greywater will be purified as much as possible within the area and blackwater used for biomass and energy generation.

De Loskade, in particular, is a building project exploring the creation of a circular district within the sugar factory. The project consists of experimenting with bio-based materials and mobility, and foresees the building up of 14 houses and 32 circular apartments by 2030. De Loskade is projected to be a “removable” and “short stay” neighbourhood. As a “pop-up” neighbourhood, temporary properties will be dismantled once the rental period has expired in 2030 and re-built in other areas (Van Wijnen, 2019[25]). Extensive pilots and testing are taking place at De Loskade, with gas-free installations and off-the-grid and energy-efficient homes for example.

Source: Groningen Municipality (2019[26]), Proposal City of Groningen for Circular and Regenerative Cties: Focus on Industrial Areas as Regenerative Drivers for the Cities of the Future; Van Wijnen (2019[25]), Circulariteit, (accessed on 5 June 2019).

copy the linklink copied!Places: Fostering urban-rural synergies for the circular economy

The metabolic connection between the city and its surroundings creates opportunities for collaboration within the circular economy approach. The traditionally close relationship between the city of Groningen and its rural surroundings has become weaker in the last decades. While the city has been increasingly conceived as a place for living and for larger industrial production, its surroundings have been strictly associated with agricultural production and the economic connection between the two has become less intense. There is a need to connect the industry sector with agriculture stakeholders and customers in urban and rural areas. Small farmers are starting to produce energy besides food, as it is more profitable due to existing incentives. Consumers are also gradually becoming potential energy producers, redefining their way of participating in the actual production processes. The local administration has a key role to facilitate a social and urban-rural dialogue in order to get them involved in the circular transition and foster new cross-cutting coalitions.

The municipality’s bio-based economic vision aims to strengthen the position of Groningen as an agro-food city (Groningen Municipality, 2013[27]). Groningen presents other optimal characteristics to thrive in the bio-economy sector advancing towards circularity. First, it is located in a region with a strong agro and energy connotation. Large production of potatoes and sugar beets are also sources of secondary materials and energy, once transformed into waste. Second, it ranks high (third in the Netherlands) in the biotech sector, thanks to the presence of life science companies (EC, 2019[28]). Third, the city can further benefit from the presence of several companies which are very active in bio-economy (e.g. Attero, Avebe, Smurfit Kappa and Suiker Unie) producing energy from biomass and advancing in innovative sector research alongside the universities. In 2013, the municipality developed a bio-based strategy focusing on three strategic lines: waste collection and management; economic policy areas; and knowledge. One of the ambitions of the bio-based strategy is to reach 20% of the energy produced in the city through biomass by 2035. This will contribute to the urban energy supply planning (Groningen Municipality, 2013[27]). The presence of strong chemical, energy and agro-food sectors provide Groningen with relevant opportunities to transition to a bio-based circular economy (Groningen Municipality, 2019[29]).

copy the linklink copied!Governance challenges to design and implement the circular transition

Mostly, the challenges cities and regions are facing in building circular economies are not of a technical but of an economic and governance nature. Technical solutions exist and are well known. However, to implement them, information and financial resources are needed, as well as an updated legal frameworks. Often, a holistic vision is still missing because of siloed policies. Cultural barriers are still a very important obstacle (OECD, forthcoming[9]). Key governance challenges to design and implement the circular transition in Groningen, Netherlands, are presented below.

Horizontal co-ordination (across municipal departments) can be strengthened to avoid siloed approaches while transitioning towards a circular economy. The city of Groningen has set up environmentally sustainable initiatives that can help build a narrative on the circular economy, from waste to mobility and energy. For example, initiatives include the use of hydrogen cars as sweepers and cleaners, awareness-raising and communication campaigns to reduce waste. However, these initiatives are still fragmented and would benefit from greater inter-relations with the aim of achieving common socioeconomic and environmental objectives. As such, there is room to improve effective communication in order to maximise synergies and opportunities related to the use of natural, financial and human resources. Although there are no specific joint programmes amongst municipal departments, the Department of Economics of Groningen Municipality is collaborating with the procurement, services and spatial planning, international affairs, water and waste departments for the development of a circular economy strategy.

While a number of co-ordination mechanisms exist within the regions and provinces, there is room for improvement. Partnerships and co-operation platforms across the provinces foresee joint circular economy activities. The Groningen-Assen Regional Alliance is a voluntary platform of co-operation at the scale of the functional urban area (FUA). The platform includes the provinces of Drenthe and Groningen and seven municipalities.7 The alliance identifies construction and waste as strategic sectors to develop joint circular economy projects. The Northern Netherlands Alliance (Samenwerkingsverband Noord-Nederland, SNN) is a partnership amongst the three Northern provinces – Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen – and the four largest cities in the region, Assen, Emmen, Groningen and Leeuwarden. The circular economy is one of the topics incorporated into the alliance’s future actions, aiming to reuse energy and waste materials at their highest quality level, while strengthening the links between natural and social capital. Different priorities can inhibit the level of effective co-ordination amongst provinces. Moreover, as highlighted above, provinces have different aims and levels of advancement towards a circular economy, the province of Friesland being the most advanced in comparison with the others. This is an advantage towards coordinated actions at territorial level, if dialogue is fostered and experiences shared.

The issue of scale is of relevance, especially for certain circular economy related activities that involve local and regional value chains. Whether the local or regional scale is appropriate depends on the type of activities, availability of resources and the existence of a market for secondary material. A local and regional economic perspective is important to strengthen the co-operation links between the city and its rural surroundings. For example, in the province of Groningen, the “Local Making Space” project (2019-20) aims to set up a local value chain and establish a link between creative industries in the city and its rural area. The initiative aims to create new products from renewable resources available within the territory of the province (House of Design, 2019[30]).

Policy coherence could be fostered to create a vision across circular economy initiatives. The circular economy approach provides an opportunity to foster complementarities across policies. Typically, synergies can be created with the City Global Climate Adaptation Centre working on agriculture and food in dry areas, sea-level rise and urban resilience. It would help the municipality to move from a reactive (e.g. focus on energy transition in reaction to the phasing out of the natural gas extractions and earthquake) to a proactive attitude, anticipating risks and creating opportunities.

Human and technical capacity should meet the needs for developing and implementing a circular economy strategy. City administrators are increasingly aware of the role of the municipality in promoting the circular economy and giving positive examples to citizens and business. As such, initiatives are in place to build capacities amongst public officers to learn about Green Public Procurement and the circular economy. Regional and local governments are in fact struggling with innovative ways of contracting. Consequently, the use of circular public procurement is still limited. This is not only due to a capacity gap but also to the difficulty in introducing clear circular related criteria for tendering. The city administration is willing to learn and build capacities for the rethinking of policies following the circular economy principles. The tender set up for the municipality’s office furniture has been mentioned above as an example of a procurement procedure that incorporates circular aspects and benefits smaller firms. The tender was conferred to a regional firm that hired local companies to implement the project. Nonetheless, the municipality acknowledges that price continues to be the most decisive factor in public procurement tender selection.

In Groningen, there is room for more systematic data collection that could allow taking circular decisions, measuring progress and improving implementation. The city collects regularly data on waste collection, energy production and consumption, as well as CO2 emissions. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement in terms of data availability and frequency (e.g. regarding air pollution; waste recycling and reuse; water consumption and reuse; number of jobs per economic sector).

Funding is yet to be defined for the transition from a linear to a circular economy. As of now, provincial and regional funds directly related to the circular economy have not been allocated. On the other hand, the municipality’s waste sector budget suffered cuts of more than EUR 100 million during the last 10 years due to national government decisions. Possibly, the city could benefit in the future from funds from the national government, which, in 2019, allocated an additional EUR 22.5 million in total for sustainable and circular initiatives consequent to the definition of the Circular Economy Strategy. However, it is unclear what the procedures are to access these funds and when the city of Groningen could benefit from them. The funding is linked to the envelope of EUR 300 million that the government makes available annually for the climate. In fact, the government strongly believes that the circular economy is needed to achieve climate goals and that waste is a resource. In the words of the State Secretary of Infrastructure and Water Management Stientje van Veldhoven: “Our raw materials will no longer come from an oil barrel, but from the garbage bag”.8 The EUR 22.5 million is structured as follows: EUR 10 million for stimulating reuse of plastics and consumer goods; EUR 5 million for recycling of asphalt, concrete and steel; and EUR 7.5 million have been allocated to promote climate-neutral and sustainable procurement (e.g. sustainable purchasing in the healthcare sector). Due to the lack of financial resources for innovators, only small-scale low-risk projects can actually materialise with limited impacts in terms of job creation and positive environmental effects. On the other hand, specific activities on a large scale are strongly dependent on subsidies, as in the case of green gas, which can limit the entrepreneurial initiative.

Regulatory frameworks could be adapted and updated to facilitate the transition. A range of stakeholders from waste operators to constructors in Groningen finds regulations related to waste reuse inadequate for the transition from a linear to a circular economy. There is uncertainty around the categorisation of waste streams and how materials can be reinserted in production processes when they are still reusable but by law qualified as waste. Innovative thinkers ask for a loosening up of rules (e.g. permits for waste reuse). While in some cases the local government does not have direct responsibilities to adequate the regulations to emerging needs related to the circular economy, in others some adaptation can be made (e.g. land use, permits). The legal and regulatory framework at the national level is expected to be adapted in order to make the Netherlands an economy without waste in 2050, as defined by the National Circular Economy Strategy. For example, since 2016, the national government adopted a flexible approach for amendments of the National Waste Management Plan to anticipate the changes required by the transition (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment/Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2016[1])). Another example is the national Smart Regulation programme (Ruimte in Regels) that runs up to 2020, for which the government co-operates with entrepreneurs to look for greater room for manoeuvre to promote sustainable innovations within current legislation (Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment/Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2016[1]). In particular, in 2017, companies in the wind energy sector contacted the Smart Regulation programme’s helpdesk specialised in the chemistry sector to raise the issue of the restrictive regulations regarding the inability to reuse plastic turbine blades for windmills after their replacement. This plastic is now used as an input in the car and ship industry (Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2017[31]).

While technical solutions are available, there is room for developing non-technical innovation in the circular economy. Pilot initiatives aim to: make the chemical and plastics industry more sustainable, replacing fossil fuels with bio-products (Bio BTX); develop innovative research for the reuse of organic potato waste and the production of plant-based protein (Avebe); generate bioplastics from biomass (Suiker Unie); and provide district heating using green gas (Bareau). Regardless of how successful the pilot initiatives are, they intend to provide new techniques that can be used to concretise circular processes. However, beyond technical innovations, non-technical ones should be set in terms of collaboration and public procurement. For example, the De Loskade circular district experimentation (see Box 2.4) could inform, through the results of the innovations (in this case a potential city district), future city urban plans (e.g. including housing, land use and mobility) and selection criteria for innovative public tenders concerning buildings and infrastructure. Three types of challenges still remain: i) to increase the acceptance of circular models by users of services and products; ii) to clearly understand costs and benefits to help entrepreneurs shift from linear to circular production models- at present, embracing circular principles is very much related to the willingness of innovative thinkers and forward-looking, less risk-averse entrepreneurs-; iii) to scale up the projects once they pass the pilot phase.

Even though there is a high level of participation from various stakeholders in policymaking and implementation in the city of Groningen, stakeholder engagement can in some cases be challenging. Stakeholder engagement requires active, specific and tailored communication strategies. The main issue is to involve a great number of people and not only the “happy few”. Circular entrepreneurs in Groningen find it difficult to get people involved in even the smallest of activities (e.g. urban gardening), aiming to raise awareness and stimulate more sustainable behaviour concerning the use (and reuse) of resources. Changing “business as usual” and contributing to a behavioural shift is not an easy task, especially when risks, costs and benefits are unclear.


[17] ABC2C (2019), Homepage, (accessed on 26 July 2019).

[20] Circle Economy/Fabric/TNO:Gemeente Amsterdam (2016), Circular Amsterdam - A Vision and Action Agenda for the City and Metropolitan Area, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

[24] Circulair Friesland Association (2015), Circulair Fryslân, (accessed on 2 May 2019).

[11] CO₂ Monitor Groningen (2018), CO-Monitor Groningen, (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[18] Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (2019), Cradle to Cradle Certified™, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

[3] EC (2019), Province of Groningen - Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, European Commision, (accessed on 22 July 2019).

[28] EC (2019), Province of Groningen - Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, European Commission, (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[12] Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019), Cities and Circular Economy for Food, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

[15] Energy Coalition (2019), New Energy Coalition: we know energy transition.

[16] EnTranCe (2019), About EnTranCe, (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[19] EPEA GmbH (2019), Homepage, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

[32] EU Eden Project (2002), Waste Neutral - A Sustainable Approach to Waste and Resource Management, Eden Project, (accessed on 6 June 2019).

[29] Groningen Municipality (2019), Chemistry,, (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[7] Groningen Municipality (2019), Introduction to Groningen - The Circular Innovation Hub.

[14] Groningen Municipality (2019), Neighborhood Energy Plans, (accessed on 22 November 2019).

[26] Groningen Municipality (2019), Proposal City of Groningen for Circular and Regenerative Cties: Focus on Industrial Areas as Regenerative Drivers for the Cities of the Future.

[5] Groningen Municipality (2018), Council Proposal: Groningen Circular.

[27] Groningen Municipality (2013), Op weg naar een groene kringloop-economie, (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[30] House of Design (2019), Homepage, (accessed on 26 July 2019).

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[22] Madaster (2019), About Us, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

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[2] Netherlands Enterprise Agency (2019), Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland, (accessed on 11 February 2020).

[23] Netherlands Entreprise Agency (2014), Tax Relief Schemes for Environmentally Friendly Investment (Vamil and MIA), (accessed on 29 April 2019).

[33] Nord Regio (2018), Developing and Managing Innovation Ecosystems in the Circular Economy, (accessed on 6 June 2019).

[6] OECD (2019), OECD Survey on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, OECD, Paris.

[10] OECD (2016), Water Governance in Cities, (accessed on 6 February 2020).

[9] OECD (forthcoming), The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[13] Reuters (2019), “Netherlands to halt Groningen gas production by 2022 - Reuters”, (accessed on 26 November 2019).

[25] Van Wijnen (2019), Circulariteit, (accessed on 5 June 2019).


← 1. Waste neutrality at the city level aims to achieve, within the different waste streams, a volume of recyclables leaving the city that is equal or smaller than the volume of products made from recyclables that enter the city (EU Eden Project, 2002[32]).

← 2. Ecosystems promotes regional economic growth through close collaboration between members (e.g. companies, research institutes and public authorities) (Nord Regio, 2018[33]).

← 3. The plant has a separation capacity of 810 000 tonnes/3 lines and an incineration capacity of 625 000 tonnes/3 furnaces.

← 4. A project co-funded by the North Sea Region Programme 2014-20 and involving five different countries in the North Sea Region (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden).

← 5. It brings together 450 rural entrepreneurs, industry and logistical companies and governments.

← 6. Thermal energy form wastewater and surface water.

← 7. These are Assen, Groningen, Het Hogeland, Midden Groningen, Noordenveld, Tynaarlo and Westerkwartier

← 8.

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