Towards a greener orange
2019-02-20 | By Tracey Taylor and Steve Voyce
While the Netherlands is home to many innovations in sustainability, which make great headlines nationally and internationally, can their incremental effect bring about a real transition?
The Netherlands has more bikes than people, and the wide flat countryside is crisscrossed by a railway network powered solely by wind turbines. Schiphol Airport, with over 68 million passengers annually, is also completely powered by wind. The country has a comparatively high number of electric cars and is relatively advanced in separating and recycling waste. The Netherlands is an affluent nation with a high educational level that drives the set-up and application of many environmental innovations. However, the key metric for measuring a country’s sustainability performance is its carbon footprint, and the Netherlands’ high energy needs are not met by renewable sources and its greenhouse gas emission per capita is around 50 percent above the EU average.
Dutch economic growth and environmental preservation
Environmental issues are often seen as the inevitable by-product of a country’s economic growth, but journalist Rogier van Rooij disagrees. He feels that “long-running economic growth and environmental preservation do not clash,” and that becoming more sustainable is economically valid because a deteriorating environment poses an ever-increasing burden on our material wellbeing. For Van Rooij, “environmental damage such as air pollution or deforestation takes away what we gain from economic growth.” He sees the needs of short-termism competing against longterm wellbeing, with the solution that “climate action costs money now but pays off in 20 years.”
Van Rooij feels an initial shift in sustainability performance will be economical, rather than political, and driven by reduced product prices. “Costs of solar and wind power have been falling radically and are expected to fall further,” he says, “it’s just a matter of years before solar can compete with fossil fuels.” As coal and combustion engines disappear, electric cars, batteries, and bioplastics will follow LED lights to become dramatically cheaper. By adapting to a sustainable economy, lower prices will create higher adoption rates and incentivise the scaling-up of production, but according to Van Rooij, this will happen in the Netherlands “only when global economic and technological pressures force the private sector to bypass the Dutch government.”
Dutch innovation and progress
The Dutch government has pledged a circular economy– a system that allows for the long life, optimal reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling of products and materials–by 2050, is committed to providing 100 percent emissions-free busses by 2025 and removing all gas and diesel vehicles from the road by 2030. A new project by the Dutch power grid and utility company, TeneT, aims to build the world’s largest wind farm on an artificial island 14 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. This revolutionary wind farm will produce more than 30 gigawatts of power, twice the amount of offshore wind power installed across Europe at present. These are ambitious plans that attempt to overcome the historical geographical and social barriers of being a low-lying, small country with a high population.
Sustainable agricultural growth
Almost twenty years ago the Netherlands made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture, “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, Dutch farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent, have almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent. It’s a success story that has led to the Netherlands becoming the world’s number two exporter of food, an accomplishment driven by economic and environmental motives. On the frontline of ecological issues Dutch farmers realised that acting sustainably was essential for the survival and prosperity of their industry.
Think global and act local
Mondiaal Maastricht was established in 1983 as a centre for international debate, education and awareness, with a focus on globalisation and human rights. These latter issues form part of the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) conceived by the United Nations with a global priority. “Mondiaal Maastricht offers hope and action,” says Nathalie Ummels, Coordinator at Mondiaal Maastricht. “We think global and act local, and our aim is to inspire and connect people.” One SDG is that cities and human settlements should be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030, and Mondiaal Maastricht is keen to build a strong, sustainable coalition in Maastricht following the
exciting announcement in September 2018 that the city is now a Global Goals municipality. “We are committed to bringing people together and although our large network can play a vital role, we cannot do it alone,” Ummels says. “A Triple Helix Model– the interaction between academia, industry and governments to foster economic and social development– is our target and we need to engage leadership and stimulate the collaboration among civic institutions and organisations.”
Travelling with her family across the USA for six months in 2017 had a profound impact on Ummels, who found that getting back to nature made her realise how much her happiness and wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of the earth, other creatures and other people. “I found I had time to think again,” Ummels says, “and time to ask myself if we realise how beautiful the earth is and, what we stand to lose?”
While warnings about sustainability have been with us for a long time, current reports suggest that we have 12 years to turn things around by making unprecedented efforts and with much of any success dependent on political will. Ummels firmly believes that education is the key to successfully achieving the global SDGs. “It is vital that we help people learn about what we are facing and to instill principles to live more sustainably,” she says, “We often think that scientists and entrepreneurs are the super-heroes but to me, it’s the teachers!”
Choosing a green energy supplier is the first step everyone can take to be more sustainable. Simple and easy solutions are at our fingertips with energy- sharing platforms like Powerpeers and Eneco’s green options and sustainability entrepreneurs like Greenchoice and Vandebron. The liberalisation of the energy market in the Netherlands sixteen years ago made it possible for consumers to choose their energy supplier and led to creative innovations in sustainability, offering consumers choices about where their energy came from. Greenchoice’s mission has always been ‘100 percent sustainable energy in the Netherlands’, while Vandebron felt consumers needed to know what energy they are buying and where it really comes from. Vandebron is an online peer-to-peer marketplace for renewable energy that connects users with a local energy source by cutting out the need for a large energy corporate ‘middleman.’ Vandebron’s subscription- based online platform was the first to enable consumers to personally choose their own source. These sources are local independent producers, such as farmers with wind turbines, and customers are able to opt for wind, solar, water or bio-mass energy.
Greenchoice serves over 400,000 customers with green electricity and forest-compensated gas. But it also encourages consumers to generate their own sustainable electricity, with a conviction that the greenest energy is the energy that you do not use. It sells and rents solar panels and heat pumps, and customers can invest in windmills and tree plantings as well as protect forest plots to compensate for their natural gas consumption. Greenchoice partners with energy cooperatives, where neighbourhoods generate and save energy, and with not-for-profit nature and environmental organisations which work to protect forests and enrich biodiversity.
Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in where products originate. As sustainable projects become more financially-viable in the energy world, consumer control follows. While change can be slow-moving at a governmental level, inventive entrepreneurial solutions mean we can implement a difference at home.
Can we make a difference?
As individuals we can make a difference by not only changing our behaviour–recycling and being aware of our energy and plastic consumption–but by applying our talents in places where they can make a larger impact. As Rogier van Rooij says, “If you are offered a job at a more environmentally friendly firm, or you are in a position to steer your company into a greener direction, do not forgo the opportunity and make a sustainable change!”
Making the world a ‘Zepper’ place
In 2016 Elon Musk announced plans to create ‘solar roofs’ rather than solar panels, but ZEP, a Dutch company, was already there with its photovoltaic roof tiles. Builder Jan Bakker’s customers had asked him for something better than ‘hideous’ solar panels, and he recognised a need for aesthetic, durable and, almost, invisible solutions. In 2013 his company, ZEP, developed the Solar Roof Tile and within three years over a hundred roofs had already been installed around the world. ZEP’s solar tiles are particularly appropriate for historical buildings and inner-city renovation projects as the tiles retain a familiar and aesthetic street appearance. Economically, Solar Roof Tiles allow customers to move toward getting off the grid, while ZEP’s ongoing product development team plans for a future where solar energy will be further building-integrated.
Cleaner oceans, clearer lenses
Eyewear brand Dick Moby was established in 2014 by Tim Holland and Robbert Wefers Bettink, who share a love for aquatics and a frustration with pollution. Dick Moby makes sustainable eyewear from plastic, without creating more waste in the process. Even their glasses’ cleaning cloths and cases are made from recycled material. Under the tagline ‘Hang loose and recycle’ their brand’s mission is make high quality products for a reasonable price and, most importantly, still be sustainable.
Wefers Bettink feels while public awareness of plastic pollution has changed greatly since Dick Moby started, “today, every week, there is a new article about it,” and this is positive, industries should view waste as a new resource and governments should reward companies that can prove the origin of their products. He also wants Dick Moby to inspire other brands to change, “to show there are other options of production and reusing resources.”
The Urgenda Case
In October 2018 an appeal was upheld in an historic court case against the Dutch Government for the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens. The Hague Court of Appeal affirmed that the Government must reduce emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels), and reductions of a lesser amount would be a violation of the rights of Dutch citizens as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2017 emissions were 17 percent below 1990 levels, so 25 percent could be seen as an extremely ambitious target. However, as a report by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency forecasted a reduction of between 19 and 27 percent by 2020, the Dutch government maintains it is already bound to meet the target without the need for major additional measures. Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda, feels that in the Netherlands environmental and national issues are intrinsically linked, “as a low-lying country we are on the frontline of climate change.”
Breaking the taboo
When a specialist advised Mariah Mansvelt Beck to start using organic tampons and pads, it was the first time she’d ever thought about her sanitary choices. Upon investigation she discovered that not only are many tampons and pads made from synthetic materials, and contain plastics and perfume, but that there are no legal requirements for listing ingredients on feminine care packaging.
Yoni, the company she set up with friend Wendelien Hebly, offers women the same comfort as other products but made exclusively of 100 percent certified organic cotton, processed in an eco-friendly way through a sustainable supply chain that ensures safe working conditions and fair pay. Yoni use biodegradable plastics and is working towards making all its products completely biodegradable to minimise environmental impact.
Mansvelt Beck hopes to “break the taboo, ditch the shame and start talking about periods properly,” and sees the fem care industry slowly following suit with improved labeling and products that are better for women and the environment. She also believes to make the urgent environmental changes needed globally we will need to move away from profit-driven motives and “integrate our social and spiritual lives with business.” Mansvelt Beck tries to be “the best version of me” when it comes to sustainability, in line with her company’s ethos that what is better for you is better for the planet.
The Ocean Cleanup
Six years ago in Delft, aged 18, Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, to develop a system that moves with ocean currents and catches plastic. The system consists of a 600 metre long floater on the water surface with a tapered three metre deep skirt attached below. The floater provides buoyancy and prevents plastic from flowing over while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. As the system moves through the water, plastic is collected within the boundaries of its U-shape. After advancing the design through a series of scale model tests, including prototypes implemented in the North Sea, the first system was deployed from San Francisco Bay in September 2018 and towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where the cleanup has officially begun. You can see updates at theoceancleanup.com
About the authors
Tracey Taylor is Irish and lives in Maastricht with Dave and their cat, Little Tubbs. She recycles!
Steve Voyce lives in Amsterdam and always separates his rubbish.