Deploying the Doughnut: Can Amsterdam Become The First Zero Waste City?

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Deploying the Doughnut: Can Amsterdam Become The First Zero Waste City?


Amsterdam is building back better but as a circular system. The forward thinking city will be using Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics theory to become zero waste. Abi Malins investigates what this means.

Abi Malins

Thu 16 Jul 2020

The Dutch capital, with its reputation of being ruled by cyclists, is a city presumed to be fairly “green”.

But there is a decidedly grubbier reality. Environmental factors cause 5-6% of deaths per year in the Netherlands, amounting to some 15,000 due mainly to air and noise pollution from road traffic, air traffic and industry.

As of 2019, the Netherlands was ranked furthest from achieving EU renewable energy targets set for 2020. A report from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) also highlighted Amsterdam as one of the most polluted areas in Europe, with residents inhaling the equivalent of ten to fifteen cigarettes a day.

Sustainable fashion in Amsterdam

It is becoming increasingly clear that reducing pollution is as vital for our health and wellbeing as it is for the planet’s.

Pre-Covid crisis, plans were already in motion to dramatically reduce Amsterdam’s environmental impact, bringing into critical review the city’s relationships with both its citizens and its surroundings.

Mounting evidence suggesting poor air quality exacerbates risk factors for contracting Covid-19 has since brought the discussion new urgency.

Now, it seems, is a crucial moment for change.

woman on an indoor swing in Ecomama hostel in Amsterdam
“A zero waste city is a fantastic ideal, but is it feasible?”

In early April, Amsterdam announced its Circular Strategy 2020-25, the first step towards generating an entirely circular urban economy by 2050.

Reducing pollution and over-consumption of increasingly scarce raw materials, the city is aiming to shape a sustainable, environmentally conscious and socially responsible future.

These are broad, somewhat utopic aims, confronting a modern capitalist system that prizes material wealth above all else.

A zero waste city is a fantastic ideal, but is it feasible?

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Amsterdam has embraced the Doughnut Economic model by economist, Kate Raworth

Moving To A Circular Economy

“[A] circular economy has been one of the city’s priorities for several years now. In 2015, Amsterdam was the first city in the world to commission a study into the possibilities for a circular economy,” says Lisa den Oudendammer, spokesperson for Amsterdam Deputy Mayor Marieke van Doorninck.

The 2020-2025 strategy combines three main focuses:

1. Implementing sustainable building methods to increase available, affordable housing

2. Reducing general refuse

3. Minimising commercial and residential food waste.

Based on British economist Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model, it aims to transform Amsterdam into a city that respects and protects the planet as a whole, as well as each of its local residents.

doughnut economics illustration

This is how Doughnut Economics works

Doughnut Economics

Explained in brief, the inner ring of Raworth’s Doughnut represents the fundamental necessities of modern life, ranging from food and clean water to gender equality and education.

The outer ring represents the limits humans may reach without damaging the natural planet around us, from the oceans to the atmosphere.

Amsterdam’s Circular Strategy situates the city squarely within the “dough,” providing citizens with all they need, while protecting the planet.

“Working with a City Doughnut basically provides us with a mirror,” comments den Oudendammer.

This allows conscious self-evaluation of how Amsterdam’s municipal policy contributes to reducing its carbon footprint, while strengthening the social foundations of the city.

Fundamentally, Amsterdam is reimagining how the city will consume and produce, aiming to halve its use of raw materials by 2030.

Den Oudendammer describes the current rate at which modern society incinerates discarded products as “unforgivable.”

“It is not… a situation that we want,” she continues. “None of us want to live in a disposable society.”

Instead, processing resources to promote quality over quantity will ensure longer product life, greater consumer ability to repair, reuse and recycle and, ultimately, less waste.

“Only when we learn to meet the needs of all people, while respecting the systems of the living planet, [will] we come to thrive"

Building Back Better

The Circular Strategy’s emphasis on increasing housing in the city is also vital.

Around one in five Amsterdam tenants are unable to cover basic costs after paying their rent and only 12% of some 60,000 online social housing applications are successful.

Job creation in sustainable sectors will be of paramount importance in the wake of the pandemic, too.

While conventional industry jobs may disappear within a circular economy, the strategy promises net job creation across sectors such as repairs, processing and sustainable construction.

The city authorities’ decision to announce the plans in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic was not taken lightly.

“We had some doubts at first regarding the timing,” den Oudendammer shares, “but it turned out that people were also longing for ideas to rebuild our economy after the crisis.”

Speaking at a LiveCast hosted by Amsterdam arts and culture centre Pakhuis de Zwijger, Deputy Mayor van Doorninck emphasised that the city’s first priority would be keeping its residents safe while the pandemic persists. Dealing with inevitable economic hardship will then be top of the agenda, but this is also a key moment to aim for a more sustainable urban future.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought the globalised flows of goods, people and capital that characterise modern life shuddering to a halt.

Many have recognised it as an opportunity to reconsider the impact our way of life has on the planet and to start anew from a moment of comparative stillness

Fashion For Good in Amsterdam

Amsterdam's already home to many circular businesses and foundations including Fashion For Good

For forward-thinking Amsterdam, strengthening its natural resilience seemed like the natural next move.

In collaboration with Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics Action Lab, the city has drawn up its Doughnut model based on four interconnected sectors: ensuring its own citizens thrive and that the city thrives within its natural habitat, while respecting the health of the whole planet and the wellbeing of the global population.

“Only when we learn to meet the needs of all people, while respecting the systems of the living planet, [will] we come to thrive,” Raworth commented during the Pakhuis de Zwijger event.

She added that Amsterdam’s strategy “could not have come at a more powerful time,” as she feels it has generated an “extraordinary ripple of inspiration” across the globe.

There is a “huge thirst amongst people for a positive vision,” she said, as individuals are awakened to the tangible possibility of renewing global societies and economies in the wake of the pandemic.

“You need to also change how you govern yourselves… how the city is owned… and how the city is financed… these aren’t easy questions, but they’re questions that every single city in the world should be asking itself"

Embracing Systematic Change

In fact, it was a resident named Anne Strijkel, den Oudendammer tells me, who started the first “Doughnut Initiative” in Amsterdam’s Zuidoost neighbourhood: “She wanted to help people in poorly insulated houses to cut their energy bills… with thick curtains made by people who are distance[d] from the labour market.”

While some Amsterdam residents keenly anticipate sustainable change, the report itself recognises that the Circular Strategy is likely to cause friction.

Amsterdam residents and businesses will encounter disruption to established norms and practices, as real change requires fundamental re-evaluation of our consumption habits and desire for material possessions.

The strategy admits its roadmap is “fraught with uncertainty,” requiring experimentation and risk-taking as the city moves through previously uncharted territory.

Raworth herself reinforced the idea that there is no certain route to a modern, “green” and conscious economy.

She is convinced that “21st century economics will be practised first and theorised later.”

Creatives for climate summit in Amsterdam

There's a real desire for positive change amonst Amsterdam businesses

Amsterdam's Not Alone

This drive for action in the wake of Covid-19 is emerging in other sectors of the Netherlands, too.

Mid-April saw the release of a manifesto signed by 170 academics from Dutch universities titled "Planning for Post-Corona: Five proposals to craft a radically more sustainable and equal world."

Amsterdam’s Circular Strategy aligns perfectly with a key point of this manifesto, den Oudendammer comments, that calls for “a shift from focusing on GDP for measuring economic growth [to] focus on thriving in balance.”

Speaking at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Raworth echoed this sentiment: “Quite honestly, the thing that keeps me awake at night is… the endless drive for growth in the profit-based and accumulation-based financial system that we currently have… that is where I think the much more profound transformation needs to take place.”

“It’s not enough just to transform your purpose,” Raworth continued.

“You need to also change how you govern yourselves… how the city is owned… and how the city is financed… these aren’t easy questions, but they’re questions that every single city in the world should be asking itself.”

While the downscaled City Doughnut has only existed since 2019, Raworth is also collaborating with other cities including Portland and Philadelphia to expand this model.

The model may be rolled out in other global locations before too long, as cities seek sustainable futures and investors look to “green” their portfolios.

“Once the lockdowns are lifted, once we start to rebuild our economies, it’s about renewal,” Raworth commented. “Let’s move this moment towards the economies we already know we want.”

From this moment of crisis and flux comes the opportunity to craft a more sustainable future. These realisations have resonated far beyond Amsterdam, but the city is blazing the trail toward making them a reality, setting a benchmark for Europe and the wider world.

What do you think? Has this struck a chord with you? Let us know in the comments below!

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