SR article

Organic waste: description of the sociotechnical system

Table of contents:
1 - Literature on change
2 - Outline of the current sociotechnical system
3 - Detailed information per group
4 - Loose Ends
5 - Reference


Literature on change

Visions are systemic and are related to the city as a socio-technical system. To realise those visions, interventions in the current socio-technical system should be made. Recent studies are focused on wider, linked processes that green the systems of social and technological practice by which we satisfy our needs for housing, mobility, food, communications, leisure and so forth. These ‘socio-technical regimes’ have become the focal unit of analysis. The policy challenge is to transform them into more sustainable configurations. Disciplines of economics, sociology, psychology and complex systems need to be combined to investigate the determinants and mechanisms that govern the innovation and adoption of a new system.  To this end, a better understanding of governance of change in socio-technical systems and innovation systems is needed.


The notions ‘socio-technical system’ and ‘innovation system’ refer to the fact that individual technical artefacts or innovations are not operating in isolation, but they dependent on specific and complex ensembles of technical and non-technical elements in society and the economy in which they are embedded. Socio-technical and innovation systems can be defined as:

Articulated ensembles of social and technical elements which interact with each other in distinct ways, are distinguishable from their environment, have developed specific forms of collective knowledge production, knowledge utilization and innovation, and are oriented towards specific purposes in society and economy.(S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014)


The ‘governance’ approach of the early 1980s argued that political institutions have limited capabilities to ‘steer’ because social systems have dynamics that are determined by all kinds of institutional, cultural, technological and other factors. This observation led to the conclusion that systems are not influenced or changed through political institutions alone (as in ‘steering’), but by the interplay of societal and state actors. This means that the boundaries of state and non-state action are becoming blurred. (S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014) In other words,  governance refers to feedback patterns that coordinate the interactions of multiple actor groups or self-organized subsystems(e.g. markets) that control the development of resources, technologies, product markets, and infrastructure. Hence, our working definition of governance of change in ST&I systems is the following:


The way in which societal and state actors intentionally interact in order to transform ST&I systems, by regulating issues of societal concern, defining the processes and direction of how technological artefacts and innovations are produced, and shaping how these are introduced, absorbed, diffused and used within society and economy. (S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014)


In order to understand the term governance dynamics the steering mechanisms that involve activities of multiple actor groups that influence directly or indirectly the resulting outcome need to be analyzed. Formulating effective responses to change the current system requires a clear understanding of the interdependent causalities between institutions, local decision making, strategic alliances and eco-innovations, as well as policies. In other words, for mastering the dynamic complexity of socio-technical transitions one should first understand how all these parties interact; further, it requires an adequate understanding of the dynamics, including the rate and direction of innovation and its diffusion, which depend on dynamic phenomena such as lock-in and inertia. Last but not least the governance principles that help to cope with systemic sources of policy failures and avoid overshoot dynamics need to be discovered.


What is important not to forget is that governance of change, defined as intentional interaction, might produce tensions between actors that are related to the exercise of certain forms of political power and economic dominance, reflecting actors’ differences in their ability to mobilize
resources and support when influencing change (or preventing it). (S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014) At the general level of governance, ‘power dependency framework’ holds that one source of influence is how important resources are distributed amongst actors. In order to meet ones’ goals and exercise agency, one is dependent upon other actors for resources (e.g. for finance, legitimate authority and knowledge). Actors may seek to deploy the resources they possess, and which others need, in such a way that they have influence over the ends to which they are deployed.


A conceptual framework that focuses on the governance of change in a socio-technical system needs to be invented. This framework consists of three main pillars:

  • the opportunity structures and capable agents in a system
  • the instrumentation of governance of change
  • the legitimacy and acceptance of change.


The three pillars can be summarized as done in     Figure 1. Using the questions from this figure the analysis done in this assignment is structured. This means that there will be looked at

who and what drives the change to a more circular economy regarding organic waste. For this, the information gathered in assignment 1 will be useful.

How is this change influenced, for this question it is important to look at policies, subsidies and market protection for factors inducing change. For this question, the role of the municipality and national government will be important.

And why is this change accepted (or not)? This question addresses cultural aspects of change, as well as other more abstract forms of change and its acceptance. This is an important factor in drawing a visions or plan regarding ‘governance of change’, but for the analysis done in this assignment, it will be the pillar with the least impact. (S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014)


Figure 1. Pillars for the governance of change (S. Borrás & J. Edler, 2014).


But, how do actors come together and find a mutual understanding of a transition context, in order to agree over the best course of action? The challenge here is to analyse how contrasting visions and expectations enrol actors into coalitions of support, come to define their interests, and shape the way that they seek to respond to selection pressures or shape their collective adaptive capacity.


Last but not least, it is observed that sustainability transition research increasingly relies on process theorizing. To that end the role of feedback mechanisms and systemic barriers as a new rationale for concerned strategy and policymaking is essential. The essence of sustainability lies in the recognition of agency in social choices about technological futures.

As for the future, your task is not to foresee, but to enable it.

Antoine de Saint Exupery


Outline of the current sociotechnical system.

Before analyzing the sociotechnical system using the pillars described above, the outline of the system will be given first and the main groups and aspects of the system will be discussed. A first visualization of the system and the basic streams is given as well, which is subsequently used in finding additional information on the streams and mechanisms. A first estimation of the size of the waste stream is also given in this part. It can, therefore, be seen as a starting point of the more detailed research that will be done for this assignment. The system we created is based on earlier publications on the organic waste flows, two figures that were used to get a first impression are given below in figures 2 & 3. The arrows in figure 3 already gave a good overview of the important groups in the sociotechnical system.

Figure 2. Organic (Biomass) streams in the Netherlands (CBS 2014).


Figure 3. Schematic overview of organic streams in the Netherlands (CBS 2014).


Based on the reports from the CBS the system surrounding the organic waste flow from households can be divided into 5 main groups of stakeholders. Agricultural system, distribution system, Users (Industry), Users (Household), Waste stream processing. These five main groups consist of many subgroups and have a lot of overlap with the others groups.

  1. Agricultural system

The agricultural system is the begin and the end of the cycle, in this system food and organic material is produced and the organic waste that is composted will be the nutrients for new plants again. This biological cycle is already functioning for millions of years and works practically on its own. The problem that arises, however, is that organic waste isn’t separated well and therefore burned, destroying important nutrients. And that global food production unevenly distributes nutrients across the world.

In this project, we do however focus on household and local industry (restaurants, supermarkets etc.) and we will not look at this system. Therefore, the system is made grey in figure 2.

  1. Distribution system

The distribution system distributes the agricultural produce to the food processors, restaurants and supermarkets. This is an important step, but we decided to not take it into account in this project. Mainly because there are few steps that can be taken regarding circularity of the complete organic waste system. One possibility is the usage of biofuels in this sector, but this is not very relevant in addressing the streams in The Hague at the moment.

  1. Users (Industry)

This is the first group of the organic stream from agriculture. In this project, we focus on the small types of ‘industry’, with a focus on restaurants, supermarkets, and garden centers. We will not look into the larger industries such as food processing or animal feed production. We are aware that these larger industries have a large part in the transition to a circular economy, but because of the timespan of the project, we will only look into smaller industries sited in The Hague. Initiatives in the Netherlands in general are also looked at to get a better idea on the size of the streams.

A first estimate is hard to make because of the low amount of information shared by the small industry, a more in-depth analysis will, therefore, be needed in the next part of this assignment.

  1. Users (Household)

The second group of users is formed by the households and their organic material use. This use consists mainly of food. Furthermore, the households produce waste from their gardens which is also considered organic waste. In this group, we don’t look at waste produced by people when going out to restaurants etc., this waste is considered in the users (industry) group.

First rough estimations of the stream size have been made using data from CBS and the municipality The Hague. In 2013 organic waste in the total national household waste stream accounted for 38%, this is equal to about 3.42 million tons of organic waste only from households. (afvalmonitor, 2013)

In the Netherlands there are around 7.7 million households, this means that a household produces an average of 489 kg’s of organic waste a year. (CBS Statline, 2015) This is a serious amount of organic waste, of which approximately 50 kgs is edible food. (Rijksoverheid, 2016) (Rutten et al. 2013, Wageningen)

The Hague has around 250.000 households (StadIndex, 2014), which then produce a total of 122.25 million kg’s of organic waste a year.

  1. Waste stream processing

In the waste stream processing system, the collection of waste from production, usage (industry and users) and agriculture are brought together. Because of the scope of the project, there is only looked at the collection from users.

Besides the collection waste processing also recycles organic waste and tries to reuse as many nutrients as possible, reuse of nutrients is achieved via composting. Other types of waste processing are burning, dumping or fermenting. The most effective waste treatment in terms of circularity is fermentation and consequently composting the organic waste. In this way, there is energy produced from the waste stream and the nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphor etc.) can be reused in agriculture.

Using data from Rijkswaterstaat a first guess of the waste stream of the waste processing is made.

In 2014 1.683 million tons of organic waste was composted. (afvalmonitor, 2014)

In 2014 there were 24 plants in the Netherlands that composted or fermented organic waste, with a total capacity of 1.683 million tons of organic waste. Compared to 2013 the total processed organic waste has risen with 7%, where the amount of waste collected was stable.  (Rijskwaterstaat,2015)

Almost all organic waste is composted first, which produces compost as well as biogas. Around 50% of the waste is converted to compost, which can be used again in the Netherlands or it is exported.  (0.693 million tons of compost) (For circularity we want it to stay in the Netherlands). (Rijskwaterstaat,2015)

0.504 Million tons of organic waste was fermented after composting or without composting. This produced 10.7 m3 of biogas. (Rijskwaterstaat,2015)

Most organic waste from The Hague is composted by the company Indaver in Alphen ad Rijn. In its composting and fermenting plant 36 tons of compost and almost 2 million m3 of biogas is produced from organic waste. (Indaver, 2016) We should be careful using these numbers, however, because they are from The Hague area, and are not only from the municipality The Hague.

Figure 4 shows a basic overview of the sociotechnical system as described above. The groups and most important streams have been given. In the next part, the interaction within and between groups will be described in more detail, and the role of the municipality will be discussed. For this in-depth analysis, the three pillars introduced in the literature chapter will be used, this will lead to a structured and clear analysis. This will lead to a more detailed map and will also give more insight into the size of the different streams. Ultimately this will help to identify the loose ends in the system.

Figure 4. Organic waste flow. Basic streams, stakeholders, and mechanisms.


Detailed information per group.

Users (industry)

Who and what are the drivers?

  1. Government
  2. Economics
  3. Rival companies
  4. Market demand
  5. NGO’s


How do they influence the sociotechnical system?

  1. The government influences the sociotechnical system with their regulations on waste management and their governance on how they collect waste.
  2. Economic is an important driver for every company as without money they can not exist. Therefore this is a driver in everything they do and this has also influenced in the way they manage their waste.
  3. In every market, it is very important to compete with rival companies. When they will manage their waste in a certain way, which is a success, it is very likely that other will also do this. Or that they will do this even better.
  4. Most companies very depend on the market demand. When the people they produce for are willing or even expecting the industry to manage waste in a certain way, this has a big influence on the industry.
  5. NGO’s are influencing the public debate about waste management and with that, they create awareness about it.


And why is their approach accepted?

  1. The approach from the government is accepted because they are a representative of the society and they have quite some power.
  2. Economics are part of the market and therefore not an approach but more a phenomenon which is generally accepted.
  3. Rival companies are part of the market and therefore not an approach but more a phenomenon which is generally accepted.
  4. Market demand is a part of the market and therefore not an approach but more a phenomenon which is generally accepted.
  5. The approach of NGO’s is accepted because they create awareness without harming other parties involved.


Users (households)

 Who and what are the drivers?

  1. The households that separate or reuse/recycle their waste.
  2. The government and municipalities
  3. Initiatives that support recycling of organic waste
  4. The media
  5. Social influence


How do they influence the sociotechnical system?

  1. Separation and recycling of organic waste slowly increase in households, because of increasing awareness regarding environmental issues.
  2. The government stimulates waste management by regulations regarding waste management and governance with regards to waste collection. For example, in urban areas waste separation is discouraged, since less space is reserved for waste collection.
  3. Initiatives spread awareness on how to improve circularity in the waste stream. Initiatives do also support the recycling of organic waste locally or regionally. Therefore, they mainly influence the system by directly stimulating individual households to become more circular.
  4. The media mainly influences the sociotechnical system because of increased awareness on the topic of sustainability; for the past few years, sustainability has become an increasingly important topic and thus citizens are becoming more informed.
  5. Social influence is an important factor in household waste management; households will improve their waste management


And why is their approach accepted?

  1. The approach of households is accepted because it has no negative consequences for other stakeholders and it does have positive results on sustainability.
  2. The government’s approach is accepted because as of now, its regulations are not restrictive for households; waste separation is not obligatory. Additionally, (supposedly) the government represents the vision of their citizens, so their visions are aligned.
  3. The initiatives that are accepted do not impose a (significant) risk on the sociotechnical system and are proven to (or attempting to) improve the sociotechnical system. These initiatives are often accepted as a means to prototype for large-scale
  4. Due to its lucrative business model, the media discuss subjects that align with the interests of its readers. Hence, their topics regarding waste and sustainability align with the demand of the people.
  5. Social influence is a phenomenon rather than a conscious driver and therefore legitimacy is irrelevant.


Waste stream processing

Who and what are the drivers?

  1. The government and municipalities
  2. Economics/Competition/Market
  3. NGO’s


How do they influence the sociotechnical system?

  1. The municipality The Hague stimulates the separation of organic waste by the waste processing companies. They also stimulate the composting/digestion of the waste. This leads to more reuse of the waste, which has a positive impact on the circularity in the sociotechnical system.
  2. Waste processors are stimulated by the subsidies and regulations from the municipality. This leads to a better market/competitive position for the waste processors that work on circularity. The market influences do therefore positively influence circular incentives of waste processors.
  3. Environmental NGO’s are influencing the public debate about waste management and with that, they create awareness about it for the large public. This awareness leads to pressure for the waste processors to set steps in their circularity goals.


And why is their approach accepted?

  1. The stimulation of the government/municipality is accepted because circularity is seen as a positive development for the environment and quality of life. The public acceptation of the importance of the factors has been growing in the previous years, as has the involvement of the government with these issues. There are some groups that do not accept the approach of the government, but these groups are a minority, so overall the approach is accepted.
  2. The approach of NGO’s is accepted because they create awareness without harming other parties involved. Their approach isn’t always accepted by the companies because the approaches can lead to a damage of their image.

The analysis above leads to a more detailed understanding of the sociotechnical system. Using the analysis the map visualizing the sociotechnical system is expanded. See fig. 5.

Figure 5. Organic waste flow. Streams, stakeholders, mechanisms, drivers.


Loose Ends

Waste separation in the tertiary sector, as well as the household sector, results in loose ends: organic waste that is processed as ‘trash’ cannot be re-used, recycled or composted (this ‘trash’ flow is marked in red in figure 5). Since this waste needs to be transported for dumping, it is even more polluting. Aside from the dumping of trash, the burning of (organic) waste may be considered a ‘loose end’ as well, since it’s a way of downcycling that is fairly inefficient. Thus, the most result can be gained by reducing waste generation in the tertiary and household sector, and by improving their organic waste separation.

We see in this sociotechnical system that the government has a big influence on every party and user. But this is not always a good influence; sometimes governance is a restriction for different initiatives and ideas from all the parties. This is mainly caused by regulatory restrictions, limiting the possibilities of groundbreaking initiatives (see: interview with ‘Glorious Bastards’ (Kastel, 2016)).

There is a big party which is missing in this sociotechnical system which is education. Education has a big influence on everybody starting at a young age. However, at this moment the education is not actively involved in improving awareness about the importance of waste management.

These loose ends will be combined to create a society where it is normal for all different parties to manage their waste in a way which will make the organic waste stream circular.





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