Gezamenlijke foto Sjors en Bart FM Focus

University and Dar find each other in circularity ideal

Researchers at Nijmegen School of Management often work together with organisations. For example, Associate Professor Sjors Witjes, who for years has had close contact with Bart de Bruin, the director of Dar. Together, they work on various circularity projects.

Sjors Witjes works in Business Administration at the Strategic Management Group. ‘I study how companies contribute to a more sustainable society and a circular economy. Increasingly more organisations are interested in what role they could play in that area. As a scientist, I’m studying how we can connect the university and the outside world. By clever collaboration, I use the knowledge of the entire university – not just about management but also about law, medicine, physics, even philosophy. I also work together with the HAN (University of Applied Science) and the ROC (Regional Education Centre).’

For five years, Bart de Bruin has been the director of Dar, the prominent waste collector and manager of public spaces in the Nijmegen region. ‘My work varies from operational to strategic issues. Operationally, the waste in the streets has to be collected and the wastebins emptied each day. If our people don’t do their job for a week, you’ll immediately see that outdoors. Strategically, we’re aiming at a circular, fresh and green living environment. Dar has an important task in this.’

Portretfoto Sjors Witjes

A dot on the horizon

The two men see each other regularly in the Circular Council, which is chaired by De Bruin. This body stems from the municipality of Nijmegen’s Green Capital Year (2018). In this council, representatives of the government, education and the business community work together on concrete circular projects. De Bruin: ‘The dot on the circulatory horizon is clear to everyone, but no one knows the exact road there.’ Witjes: ‘All of the participants are open to taking on the challenges that we encounter along the way.’

Dar and the university work together on diverse projects. Witjes: ‘Last year we had a project about electronic waste. For example, in hospitals and universities there are still holes in the electronic cycle. They often don’t know how much electronica they have, what is being used where and where it ends up after being used. Honours Academy students made an inventory of the streams and responsibilities of the entire university. It turned out that Radboud University Medical Center is responsible for the purchase of certain electronic instruments at the university. But the university was completely unaware of this.’ De Bruin: ‘Findings like these don’t immediately lead to concrete solutions, but if you know who is responsible for what, then you can make better choices. For example, the purchasers can consciously buy only electronics that are easy to repair or that incorporate recycled plastic.’

Bart de Bruin portretfoto

Closing the nappy cycle

Since February, Dar and the university – together with the waste-to-energy plant ARN – have been working on another project: the separate collection of nappies. Witjes: ‘These are very complex products full of valuable materials such as plastics. A student thinktank is going to study the possible ways of closing the nappy cycle. That means that as little as possible is lost during production, use and waste treatment. As a supervisor, I have some ideas about possible solutions, but the students themselves largely determine what comes out of the project.’

According to De Bruin, the biggest challenge in processing nappies is similar to that of other resource streams: collaboration in the chain. ‘Given their logical influence on the design of the product, manufacturers should have more intensive contact with the recyclers of their product. But my view is that the major nappy manufacturers are hardly interested in circularity; they’re mainly focused on how comfortable the nappies are to wear and, linked to this, turnover and profits.’ Witjes: ‘Some manufacturers are interested in the plastics and the energy delivered by recycling nappies. For example, BASF, which makes plastic granules for nappies, is in discussion with the ARN.’ De Bruin: ‘That’s right. And that’s an important sign, just like IKEA, which has become a co-owner of the Dutch mattress recycling plant RetourMatras. These are the first signs that the circular wheel is beginning to turn. But what makes it difficult for manufacturers is that the circular wheel often doesn’t align with the economic wheel. In other words, circularity still often costs (a lot of) money, for example because virgin raw materials are cheaper than recycled raw materials. Companies have to make their choices within that conflicting area.’

Double advantage

Both Witjes and De Bruin are enthusiastic about their collaborative projects. Witjes is especially enthusiastic about the added value for education: thanks to their contact with actual situations, students learn to look differently at theory. ‘They have both feet on the ground and experience for themselves what the actual developments are and what they mean for companies.’ De Bruin sees a double advantage: ‘As an employer, we’re always looking for people who can help us further with all of the issues that we encounter. The more versatile people are educated, the more valuable they are to us. And all chains have a large interest. Factual knowledge from the university is essential to making the right decisions together. And vice versa, our practical knowledge can be a valuable addition to theoretical education. I think that these two aspects are crucial in our collaboration.’

Sjors Witjes also works in others ways on bundling knowledge and collaboration. Last November he organised a so-called DAN-CE (Dutch Academic Network on Circular Economy) event. Tens of top researchers from universities and institutes like TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) and the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) as well as representatives from government bodies and the business community met one another on the campus in Nijmegen. They worked out a research proposal intended at ensuring that implementing policy in the area of the circular economy would be directly supported by scientific research. Witjes: ‘Bundling knowledge like that is enormously valuable. In the end, we’re all working on the same question: how can we as a society come a step further with respect to circularity and sustainability?’

Text: Machiel van Zanten

Photo: Duncan de Fey

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