“Every city does it in their own way. In The Hague, we do it locally.” Interview with Ger Kwakkel who works for The Hague and PlastiCity
The Hague is an impressive city, most famous for its International Court of Justice, the beautiful seaside and of course their Haagse Bollen. Yup, even in bakeries they are true innovators. But that is not it, The Hague wants to be a lead in the circular economy and recycling. That is why they intensely support the PlastiCity project. Let’s knock on advisor in circular economy Ger Kwakkel’s door, and get to know the city and project.
Why did you start with PlastiCity?
Ger Kwakkel: “Small companies are recycling already, and big players are separating plastics in factories. But there is a gap between them, so we wondered whether we could fill that void at city level, or whether we could uplift plastic recycling. That is how we came up with the idea of PlastiCity.“
If you look at the analysis, you discover a gap between the waste that a company generates and the plastic that an upcycle company can use. To fill that gap, we created the Plastic Hub, as a kind of plastics broker. This way there is a processing step between the plastic waste generated by a company and, for example, the plastic that a 3D printing company needs to print with. The Plastic Hub must be a link in the chain.
There is also an educational factor. Since many things (the labo, the research team, the collection of the waste) come together physically in this hub, the project becomes visible and people who are interested can come and visit. For example, the director of a cinema and his facilities manager could come and see what recycling solutions are available. Ownership plays an important role here. If organisations can see how their waste can be recycled locally in The Hague, they will -hopefully- feel more responsible for it.
What was your highlight of the PlastiCity project in The Hague in 2021?
Ger Kwakkel: “We filled up three sea containers with plastics. We even had to push the last bits in. In the first year, partly because of the coronavirus, only 20 to 30 companies participated, but now in 2021 there is much more enthusiasm, so that number keeps growing.”
How do you motivate companies to commit themselves to PlastiCity?
Ger Kwakkel: “In The Hague we have had the principle of Sustainability Circles for about 10 years now. These circles are 15 groups of companies like beach pavilions, hotels, the cultural sector, etc. where sustainability is already high on the agenda. Now we are reaping the benefits of that; we are going to present the PlastiCity project to them and because they are already involved with ecology, we do not need to drag them into our story starting from zero. So, it becomes just a small step for them to join us in the project.”
The PlastiCity project is not only about plastics, it also plays a societal part. It is about creating jobs and the circular economy. If you are going to incinerate waste, you only need a handful of people. Whereas if you are going to rework, repair, etc., then you need a lot more workers, which makes it an interesting project, not only ecologically but also economically.
The best result would be that when the European project stops, the project lives on in The Hague. But it needs work. The easiest way for companies is to pay a waste worker a monthly amount, after which he collects your waste and processes it. No more worries for you!
But of course, you don't know what happens to that waste once it is thrown away. The story of PlastiCity is a bigger challenge. That is why we have developed tools for companies and policy makers, such as roadmaps to explain our idea. What plays an important role in this story is 'ownership'; a company must consider itself responsible for their plastics. That you create an attitude of 'this is my plastic, I caused this and I would like something good to happen with it'.
In order to strengthen this ownership, PlastiCity The Hague would like to achieve that the businesses that collect waste for our project, buy their own products again. As a cinema, for example, you could rework collected PET bottles into cups or trays and then buy them back yourself. This way, you achieve a closed local cycle. Good for the environment and as a company, something to be proud of.”
What did you learn from the project?
Ger Kwakkel: “Cooperation can be complicated, especially in a cross-borders project. The coronavirus didn't make it any easier, of course. At the beginning of the project, we had physical meetings and in those two days we could achieve so much more than what we did the virtual way. Especially because people talk to each other afterwards and ask questions: 'what did you mean by that?’. Due to miscommunication and the lack of face-to-face, at times we were not aligned as should be. But let’s hope this is a temporary thing.
By the way, there are a lot of nationalities and thus cultures working on the project. The Belgians, English, Dutch and French are different. They each have different motives within the project, and that already makes for a complex basis. Covid-19 didn’t make it any better.”
Did covid-19 influence the project in other ways?
Ger Kwakkel: “Yes, of course, a lot. We made a list of different industries we would like to approach, but a lot of them were simply closed. At a certain point, we were all obliged to work remotely in The Netherlands, so there was a lot less industrial and commercial waste. Which meant there was no point in occupying offices for us. On top of that, when businesses do have the opportunity to run, their waste management is not necessarily something that is at the top of the agenda right now. There are other priorities to deal with, like finances, worker’s health etc.
The Mobile Unit, which is currently still in Ghent, was meant to be an essential part of the project: to visit companies and give them showcases on how their plastic can be recycled. Due to the coronavirus, we couldn’t use it, which is a big loss because explaining it in person and making it tangible is a really important factor which makes a big difference. Now we had to rely on Teams and Zoom to tell our story.”
How does The Hague distinguish itself from the other participating cities? And how do other cities inspire you?
Ger Kwakkel: “PlastiCity The Hague distinguishes itself by its focus on the local cycle. I think the strength of the project lies in the fact that everyone does it in their own way. Every city has its own approach and that is how we can learn from each other. We all start from the strengths of our own city. For example, the advantage of The Hague is that we are relatively large, with 550,000 inhabitants and many companies. We can use that. The Hague is also a bicycle city, so that is why we came up with the idea of using the Resource Bike. So everyone translates their city's DNA into the operations within the PlastiCity project.”
What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
Ger Kwakkel: “The workshops that we will be organising from February on. I think it will be very nice to sit down with a cinema owner and a few designers to have a look at what products they would like to create from their waste. We do the exercise within their own company management of what they could reuse. The designers can then decide what is feasible to develop.”
Do you have any tips for companies or individuals to be more aware of plastic?
Ger Kwakkel: “What I find interesting is the R-ladder. There are different levels of circularity; low on the ladder is incineration and recycling, in the middle reuse and upcycling. At the top of the ladder, you find rethinking. How can you organise your services in a different way? Take, for example, a start-up in The Hague: when you order food from a restaurant, it comes in plastic packaging. You eat your meal at home, and afterwards you throw away the plastic. This start-up wants to produce reusable packaging, so you actually prevent plastic waste. They will set up a collection and washing-up system and bring the reusable packaging back to the restaurants. Those restaurants will then use it again and again which results in a closed cycle where there is no waste. That's the kind of economy you want, so maybe in 10 or 15 years' time you won't need PlastiCity anymore … We are trying to make ourselves useless (laughs out loud).”