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"We have a lot of questions, and PlastiCircle will help us" - the latest from Utrecht's Eric Velthuizen

16 October 2019

At PlastiCircle we've turned our attention from Valencia to the project's second pilot in the Dutch city of Utrecht, where we'll be rolling out innovations in the disctrict of Terwijde. To get a feel for the new pilot, we caught up with Eric Velthuizen, project manager at Gemeente Utrecht, and co-ordinator of PlastiCircle activities in the city.

PlastiCircle’s second pilot phase has just begun in the city of Utrecht. But why do you need this particular circular economy project? What will PlastiCircle deliver for you?

We are a large city with some challenges when it comes to waste. One of the big challenges we have is with plastic waste because the amount of plastic waste here is increasing, it’s difficult to get rid of it and even recycle it.

But here in Utrecht we want to move from a linear to a circular economy. We want to close the raw material gap by 2040-2050, and it will take a lot of hard work to get there. And we have a lot of questions. For instance, how can we motivate our citizens to separate their waste? What do we need from them? What do they need from us? PlastiCircle will help us formulate the questions, but also collect the answers – answers from not only our citizens, but from companies. Companies that sort the plastic waste, companies that recycle the plastic, and companies that use the recycled material for new products.

Tell us about the pilot district of Terwijde. What are you going to do here and why is it a good place for the pilot?

Terwijde is one of the relatively newer areas of Utrecht, with around 3,000 households and 6,000 or 7,000 inhabitants. The area has a good mix of younger and more senior citizens, and is therefore a good place to test various approaches. Plus it is large enough that we can recruit enough volunteers to answer our questions and participate in the pilot.

What’s going to happen there over the next few months?

The pilot will take about three months. First, over the initial six-week period, we will try to raise awareness of plastic waste. People have to be aware and conscious of the issue before they can act on it. We’ll be asking questions of households such as: “how much plastic waste is being generated in one week?” or “what types of plastics are you using?” or even “what do you need from the local authorities or government to help you?”

The second half of the pilot will be about reducing plastic waste. This could, for example, involve encouraging our citizens to only buy plastic products that can be recycled into new materials. In other words: to avoid purchasing or using single-use items.

By the end of the pilot, we hope that the amount of plastic collected will have increased, but also that our citizens will become more aware of the need to purchase products that can be recycled.

How are you going to get citizens actively involved in this pilot? What’s your strategy?

We have an online platform which, apart from being a good way of reaching people, reduces the need for paper and brochures and waste, etc. With this platform we can reach out to those who have signed up for the pilot and provide them with a weekly “assignment”. This might simply mean asking them a question on how they deal with their waste, or it might involve raising awareness of a particular issue such as types of plastic. The thing about the online platform is that we can share videos, information and all types of media. And it’s easy. The assignments will only take five minutes a day, and can be completed from the couch using a smartphone or tablet.

Are there any particular PlastiCircle innovations that Utrecht and indeed the Netherlands should keep an eye on, be it smart containers or anything else?

Of course in Utrecht we are relatively advanced with our use of smart containers, but the thing is we always try to do better.  If PlastiCircle shows us that we can do things more efficiently, then we will not hesitate to take up these new methods or technologies. It’s not just the smart containers we are keeping an eye on, but also the driver behaviour guidance and software – we want to improve how our waste truck drivers operate. That means driving more efficiently, using less fuel and improving safety.

On the whole though, plastics are not just a Dutch problem but a worldwide problem. The more information we get from the other PlastiCircle pilots in Valencia (Spain) and Alba Iulia (Romania), the better it is for us in Utrecht. How do they motivate their citizens? How do they approach the challenges of plastic waste? We need to know so we can learn lessons!

On the “big picture” then, how far along is Utrecht towards a circular economy?

Well here in Utrecht we want to recycle 100% of our waste by 2040 or 2050. I know that this isn’t the only goal of a circular economy, but it is one of our objectives. And currently we’re only half way there – about 50% of our waste is recycled or reused as a raw material. It’s pretty good but it’s not good enough. And based on the information we get from Plasticircle and other projects, we are trying to improve our performance. But in general we are going in the right direction.

What do you want to see happening at an EU level to make the linear economy a thing of the past? How does Europe “get circular”?

At the EU level, we really need a level playing field across the continent, with guidelines and regulations that can be fully implemented in every Member State. But the first step we have to take is prevention – how can we prevent waste in the first place, not only for plastics but for many materials? And the second step is ensuring that materials which are used should always be fit for reuse. That’s why new EU regulations on single-use plastics are very welcome – because these materials aren’t reused and therefore shouldn’t be in circulation. It’s unwise to bring materials into society that can’t be recycled or reused. We need to see this at the EU level.