Wageningen University & Research: Visions on the circular household of the future

“This is my future we’re talking about,” says Fatou Faye, a 4th-year VWO pupil who appears in the documentaries, in the webinar’s opening session. She fears that future generations will have a harder life if we don’t collectively change our lifestyles. Fellow pupil Jonna Coevert adds: “Circular should be the new normal, but in the meantime, a vegetarian burger is still twice as expensive as a beef burger.”

Image sometimes gets in the way of sustainable choices, the pupils say. “Veggie people don’t have a very good reputation among youth,” says Fatou. And Jonna thinks she and her friends might find it hard to buy sustainable clothing: “I hope that WUR (Wageningen University & Research) can develop sustainable materials for making trendy and affordable clothing.”

Rector Magnificus Arthur Mol is happy with Fatou and Jonna’s involvement. “You two represent the future and you are entitled to expect us to work towards creating affordable sustainable solutions, so you can choose for sustainable options because price and quality are aligned.”

Circular economy: the consequences at home
The webinar also included the premiere of two short documentaries in which WUR researchers share their vision of the future. The first one focuses on the circular economy and its consequences for ‘at home’. Imke de Boer, Professor of Livestock & Sustainable Food Systems, predicts that in future, we will only produce food for human consumption, with animals eating grass and waste flows such as beet leaves and soybean meal.

“We are moving towards a more plant-based diet of vegetables, fruit, more legumes, and wholegrain products, with a bit of meat, milk, and eggs.” This shift is needed if we want to produce food within the planetary boundaries, she says. But it would mean reducing the production of animal products in the Netherlands alone by 50%. “It’s doable,” she says, but it requires us to eat differently than we do currently in the West.

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In his role as Project Manager for Sustainable Textiles, Michiel Scheffer is committed to radical change in the textile sector. He predicts that in future, our clothing will be entirely free of fossil materials. “We still have 99% to go, with approximately 30 years left to make it happen.” History shows that it is possible: “In 1900, people wore cotton, linen and hemp.”

Scheffer believes that if we reduce our meat consumption, we will have enough land available for the production of plant fibres. New crops such as miscanthus are very interesting as a source of textile fibres. “And we can make much more effective use of fibre-rich waste flows, for example from the production of vegetarian meat,” says Scheffer, who also sees an important role for recycling. “As it stands, we only recycle 1% of the 20 kilos of fibres we use per person per year.”

Good separation at the source
Christian Bolck, Project Manager for Materials, hopes that all products used by the household of the future will be made from recycled products. The challenge lies in effectively separating the materials after use in order to reuse them optimally. This requires first of all a good separation at the source by each household, he says.

“But we will still need technology to further implement the separation.” In addition to effective recycling, Bolck believes that it is also important to think about where we want to source our new raw materials. “Corn stalks, for example, are highly suitable for making textiles.”

But will all this new sustainable technology find its way into our daily life? This is by no means self-evident, says Gert Spaargaren, Emeritus Professor in Environmental Policy for Sustainable Lifestyles and Consumption. “There are good arguments for weaning the Netherlands off natural gas. But forcing an entire neighbourhood to give up gas cold turkey won’t work,” he says. Nor do city dwellers look forward to underground CO2 storage units being installed in the direct vicinity of their homes.

So how should we proceed? “We have to bridge the gap between what is technologically possible and what citizens want by asking experts to meet citizens halfway, and vice versa. Sustainable change,” he says, “is mostly a social phenomenon.”

A circular living environment
What will our living environment look like in future? This was the topic of the second documentary. Lawrence Jones-Walters, Programme Director of Nature Inclusive Transitions, imagines that by 2050, we will live in a world where nature will help us to soften the effects of climate change. He predicts that humans and nature will increasingly be using the same space: “We can benefit nature, but also utilise nature for our benefit.”

Jeroen Sluijsmans, Project Leader of the Research Programme on Solar Parks, addresses the potential of multiple land use combined with solar energy. Especially in areas that face more drought as a result of climate change, solar parks and agriculture can easily be combined, he says. “Under the solar panels, you can create a microclimate with up to 30% less evaporation, so the crops growing there incur less damage.”

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Eveline van Leeuwen, Professor of Urban Economics, offers a glimpse into the future of the city. Cities will be a lot healthier and greener than they are now, she predicts. More greenery also means that cities will be better equipped to handle periods of heat and extreme rainfall. According to Van Leeuwen, a sustainable city also requires people to use products differently: “This means we need to change our behaviour: fewer products, no more disposable products, and more sharing and recycling.” And this, in turn, requires an infrastructure to make it possible.

The social aspect of circularity
In The Hague, the inner city industrial site De Binckhorst is to be transformed into a sustainable neighbourhood with multiple housing and work opportunities. “De Binckhorst was traditionally home to many small companies that focused on the reuse of materials, but also on deploying people with a disadvantage in the labour market,” says Marleen Buizer, Assistant Professor in Social Sciences.

This social aspect of circularity should be retained, she thinks. Also when the site sports its 5000 new houses. In developing the area, the leading principle should be proximity. For example, compost can be collected at the local city farm, and instead of driving to IKEA to get new furniture, you could go to a local shop that makes furniture from recycled wood.

The webinar offered participants lots of space to ask questions and engage in dialogue with WUR professors Martha Bakker and Hans van Meijl, and Imke de Boer and Katrien Termeer.

This time was well used, and the discussion that followed made it abundantly clear that there are many dependencies between these various perspectives, largely converging around our use of land and the social dimension. One thing is clear: the circular household is a topic that deserves further and deeper exploration. Which is precisely what it will receive at Circular@WUR conference currently planned for April 2022.

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