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Why a face scrub embodies a Dutch circular history

  • Why face scrub embodies Dutch circular history
  • A utility-led collaboration helped to reimagine waste as a resource.

  • An example of the circular economy created on a country-wide scale.

  • Call for clearer, European-aligned legislation to promote resource recovery.

About the entity

KWR generates knowledge to enable the water sector to operate water-wisely in our urbanised society. At KWR, we have a sense of professional and social responsibility for the quality of water.

On the surface, cosmetic beauty products and water treatment waste products are worlds apart.

A collaboration in the Netherlands, however, reveals that these two businesses can align much more closely than you may initially think.

An organisation called AquaMinerals, together with utilities Waternet & WML and skincare company, Naïf, teamed up to produce a circular face scrub.

A circular history

While the skincare product can be seen as the modern-day face of a circular economy in action, the history of the country’s circular efforts goes back much further.

It was over 25 years ago that a group of Dutch water utilities came together to address how to best treat their solid wastes. What originally started as a collective way to save costs, eventually evolved into a flagship example of the circular economy in the Dutch water sector.

Waste was reimagined as a resource, and so AquaMinerals was born.

The organisation looked for market needs as a starting point for the specifications of the residuals, which are removed from water in the treatment process.

Today, the company reclaims and resells circular products for over 10 different sectors, including lime, otherwise known as calcite. This is removed during the drinking water softening process before being recovered and processed into the circular face scrub, as well as pellets for gardening and glass bottles.

Creating a link between resources and the market

“What AquaMinerals did was to become a nationwide brokerage company to connect resources from water utilities to the market,” said Christos Makropoulos, principal scientist at KWR Water Research Institute.

“This is a great example that technology of an individual water treatment plant is an enabler but alone is not the whole picture by any means. Even if you can extract a resource at a local level from a single facility, it doesn’t mean that it’s a circular economy and you have a market or business model. It doesn’t work like that. There is still a missing link between the resource and the market.”

As part of its role, AquaMinerals collects all the valuable resources from utilities in the Netherlands and one in Flanders. It takes care of quantities, moving materials around to guarantee contract values.

Market-first approach and scale are key to success

A market-first approach enabled AquaMinerals to find out which resources were needed first, in effect defining the demand before providing the supply. 

As a result, resources are recovered from water utilities' treatment plants to the specifications needed.

Gerard van den Berg also believes a matter of scale is key to success.

“If individual utilities collected and recovered their resources to sell on the market, they would only have a 10 per cent share," said the KWR project manager for the international research programme.

“Even with materials such as iron, calcium and salts – they are very cheap, and you cannot compete with the big market of cheap chemicals.

“For a circular economy to be successful across Europe, it’s not just about the technology – you need to organise at scale to make it profitable. AquaMinerals is still one of the only examples in Europe that does it on this country-wide level.”

Calling for simpler and clearer legislation

After scaling AquaMinerals to a team of 18, director Olaf van der Kolk said there is a need for clearer, aligned legislation on a European level. He believes it would enable more businesses to reclaim and reuse waste streams.

“Politicians are ambitious, but the people writing the legislation and in particular, enforcing the laws can make things difficult. For instance, when there is too much space for multiple interpretations,” he added.

“Reusing waste requires a lot of knowledge about legislation and compliance, which is expensive and sometimes too complex for a commercial company to pursue.”

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