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The circular economy train has left the station. This statement, which no longer surprises anyone today, is also the title of the Chamber of Commerce‘s latest publication “Actualités & Tendances” presented on Monday 8 July.

Written by economist Hoai Thu Nguyen Doan, the publication analyses, over some fifty pages, the ins and outs of the transition towards a circular economy. It is a question of both revitalising the economy and society, while at the same time responding to the most urgent environmental issues.

“Contrary to popular belief, the circular economy is a rather old concept. The notion of waste has only recently emerged, with the development of the modern consumer society,” said Ms. Nguyen Doan. “The circular economy was already practiced in many pre-industrial activities, aimed at saving resources, to keep raw materials in the economic circuit for as long as possible.”

The Chamber of Commerce document proposes a set of recommendations for considering the success of the transition process to the circular economy. These measures focus on five priority sectors: plastics, food waste, critical raw materials, construction and demolition, and biomass and bio-products.

Challenging the situation

“We must question the way we conceive the economy, the efficiency of our economic systems and above all the resilience and sustainability of these economic models,” warns Marc Wagener, Chief Economist at the Chamber of Commerce. “The transition to a circular economy implies a questioning of certain consumption and lifestyle habits. This transition depends on the goodwill of everyone: civil society, business, public authorities, but also on their ability to work together.”

Recalling that the coalition government programme presented last December contains around 30 points related to the circular economy, Hoai Thu Nguyen Doan insists that “the role of public authorities is crucial, as they have a global view of the situation”.

In this respect, Christian Tock, Director of Sustainable Technologies at the Ministry of the Economy, did not fail to recall everything that has been undertaken since the publication, in 2015, of the first national study on the circular economy. “The evolution over the last four years is positive,” he explained during the panel that illustrated the presentation of the Chamber of Commerce’s report. “The fact that so many of us are here today to attend this event is a concrete illustration. We may not have been the first to embark on this reflection, but we have an asset that is not necessarily found elsewhere: awareness is really general and all the major actors concerned have shown great interest in working on the subject. Several ministries are also directly involved, not just one as in many other countries. In any case, a whole system must evolve: public procurement, production, finance, insurance,… everything must change at the same time, otherwise we will not succeed.”

Convincing the general public

The municipality of Wiltz, in the north of the country, in the heart of the Ardennes, is a life-size laboratory of what can be done in the field of circular economy. In 2015, it was designated as the “communal hotspot of the circular economy”. “After a few economically difficult years, we thought it would be an opportunity to be the first municipality to move forward on a path that others, in a few years’ time, will have to follow,” summarised Pierre Koppes, alderman of Wiltz, in charge of developing the circular economy. “In 2018, we designed and signed a charter of commitment for the circular economy, approved unanimously by the municipal council. This ensures that the process will continue even if the political parties governing the city change after the next elections.”

At the moment, many projects, both in the field of housing and business areas, are underway. “We have many of them in parallel. Within a year, we will have concrete results to present.” The municipality is considering, for example, systematically incorporating sustainable development criteria into public tenders. “However, one of the greatest challenges remains to convince the general public, the citizens. We are also preparing a dedicated hub, an open space to present, in all transparency, everything that is being done in the municipality and encourage citizens to buy into this direction.”

In the field, companies and research institutes have been working on the subject for several years. The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), for example, is involved in several projects dealing with different aspects of the subject. “Research can be of great help in taking into account all the sustainable development parameters that interact,” explained Sébastien Zinck, Senior R&D Engineer specialised in circular economics at LIST. Digitisation must be better used, but we must remain vigilant about the impact on the environment and on the energy sources of such solutions. A fair balance must be struck between this impact and the added value of the entire system. It is obviously necessary to avoid a rebound effect, but above all to ensure that human beings remain at the centre of the decisions taken.”

Companies on the ball

Some companies are already well advanced in the concrete implementation of circular approaches. The painting company Robin, for example (who is also responsible for decorating the Luxembourg pavilion at the World Expo Dubai 2020) started to turn towards the use of water-based paints in the early 2000s. “However, even now, there is still a solvent base left,” explains Gérard Zoller, CEO of Robin. “That is why since 2014 we have been working on natural-based paints and, for example, in cooperation with Luxembourg farmers and the water union, we have developed linseed oil-based paints. We are also studying, with the SuperDrecksKëscht, how to recover the approximately 1,000 tonnes of paint collected each year and destined for incineration.”

At ArcelorMittal, too, the issue is at the heart of the world steel giant’s thinking and actions. “With an annual production of 2.2 million tonnes, we are continuously working to directly reduce the environmental impact of this production,” says Marion Charlier, research engineer at ArcelorMittal.

For example: the dismantling of the Esch-Schifflange metal bridge, 90 years after its construction in 1927, whose parts were remelted in the Belval electric furnaces; or the recovery of energy generated by smoke leaving the Belval plant, at 400 degrees, to supply the urban network with hot water.

“We have also developed the principle of renting sheet piling which is used on construction sites on a temporary basis, as construction companies do not have the possibility of keeping it in stock. We can reuse these beams 10 times over a period of 15 years.”

Everyone is concerned

For Mrs Charlier, there is no doubt: “Luxembourg has always been able to adapt to the changes in society and the country can become a real laboratory for innovative and sustainable solutions. It is now necessary to create a relay for economic growth, while being in line with expectations. This requires a clear framework and good communication between all actors in all sectors.”

The Luxembourg EcoInnovation Cluster, managed by Luxinnovation, is a meeting point for the country’s various economic actors involved in these issues, whether private or public. “The concrete implementation of the circular economy concepts can be achieved in various priority and promising sectors, as mentioned in the Chamber of Commerce’s publication ‘Actualités & Tendances’. The construction sector is well represented”, notes Charles-Albert Florentin, the manager of the EcoInnovation cluster. “The concepts of demountability, flexibility, C2C materials or selective deconstruction are indeed essential aspects that must be taken into account in the development of new districts and new housing adapted to future requirements.”

The call for goodwill from all sides and the need to move forward, all in the same direction, is what is clear from the exchanges that took place during this event. “The transition to a more resilient economy requires the goodwill and participation of all,” concluded Hoai Thu Nguyen Doan. “The circular economy train is on the move and it is not too late to jump on board and make it a success.”

Photos : Chambre de Commerce

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