SR article

Vision for the circular economy of wood

Students: Manuella Borgers, Niki Versteeg and Marco Vogelzang

Supervisor: Dr. Ir. B. (Bertien) Broekhans

Date: December 15, 2016


1. Introduction

It is widely recognized that our worldwide resources are depleting. Cirkelstad the Hague wants to lower its material footprint and become circular in the long run, as explained by Rutger Büch of the Cirkelstad Platform during its lecture. For the course Engineering for Sustainable Development we are going to support the initiative of the Hague. All group study an individual material stream and create a vision of how this material stream can become circular. This vision can be found in this report.

The topic of this material flow is wood. When wood becomes waste it can not be remelted, renewed through (petro)chemical processes or transformed to a new, fresh material. Wood will always be deteriorating, which makes it even harder to reach a circular state.

The reports starts with an explanation on transition management theory and quality criteria for visioning as methodology for getting understanding of the importance of a correct vision. Second, theoretical insight of the circular economy is given and compared to meanings of people in the Dutch wood sector. In the third chapter the vision is given. The next assignments will explain the socio technological system and flow diagrams and for that reasons those topics are not discussed.


2. Methodology and theoretical framework

In this chapter the transition management theory is discussed. This theory is the fundamental basics of our approach to realise Cirkelstad the Hague.

2.1 Transition management theory

Transition management has been adopted by Dutch policy makers for working towards sustainability. Transition management can be best described as forward-looking, adaptive and multi-actor governance aimed at the long term goals (Kemp & Loorbach, 2006). Rotmans, Kemp & Van Asselt (2001) add to the description the interdisciplinary nature by involving economics, culture, technology, ecology and institutional influences to a radical, structural change.

A transition consists of four phases: pre-development, take-off, breakthrough and stabilization (figure 1). Kemp & Loorbach (2006) gives a description of a transition process. The transition starts with niche experiments in a protective space. Second, successful niches are opened up to the public. Early adopters will start to use the artefacts that are created in the niche. When the general public starts to use the artefact, the third stage is reached. The transition is succeed when the goal of the niche has become the new stable state. Transitions are normally a gradual process during one or two generations (25-50 years).

Figure 1: The four phases of transition management (Kemp & Loorbach, 2006: 106).

These four phases take place at three analytical levels: landscape, regime and niche (Schot & Geels, 2008; Geels, 2002). The smallest scale is the niche level. Niches are the locus for radical interventions due to its protective space for experimentation (Pesch, 2015). The regime is the current rule-set or grammar embedded in institutions and infrastructures. The landscape level is the exogenous socio-technical state. By applying strategic niche management regimes can be changed. This perspective is called the multi-level perspective (MLP) by Geels (2002), shown in figure 3.


Figure 2: Multiple levels as a nested hierarchy (Geels 2002, 1261).

In order for a transition to be managed through all four scales and three scales, Kemp & Loorbach (2006) identified four major tasks within transition management (figure 3):

  • Organizing a multi-actor network
  • Developing sustainability visions and transition agenda
  • Mobilizing actors and executing projects and experiments
  • Evaluating, monitoring and learning.

These steps are a continuous cycle till the transition is completed. Kemp & Loorbach (2006) state as crucial points the iterative nature of the process, evaluation of its experiments and process, keeping in mind that a transition is not one single solution, but a system innovation and experiments. Strategic experiments help to learn about system innovation. Experiments provide new information and insights and learn actors about their own goals. The results should feed in overall projects and inform decisions at both the operational as strategic level.  

Figure 3: Activity clusters in transition management (Kemp & Loorbach, 2006: 121).

Implicit in the activity clusters of figure 3 is the role of the actor. This role can be seen in the need for the multi-actor network and the mobilization of actors. Pesch (2015) has named it the agency-based approach. He argues that current transition theory lack the consistency of the role of agents. He identified two roles of individual agents: the role of the regime actor and the one of the outside. First, the regime actor is involved in the reproduction of the rule-system of the regime by its mental and cognitive routines. The role of the actors is always handled by individuals. Pesch state the following how that offer possibilities:

Individuals working for organizations are more than just organizational representatives, the are also motivated by interests and values that emerge from personal interests, other institutional functionalities, culture and political and ideological persuasion. In other words, individual agents have to deal with different sets of meanings, which at times do not match, opening up their discursive space.” - Persch (2015: 385)

According to him this concept discursive space is important. This offers opportunities to change the routine of the regime actors. The second actor is the one of the outsider. The outsider is not involved in the design or the decision-making in any scale of the transition, but are important as frontrunners for change:

Outsides, who together with innovative and pioneering regime players can be seen as ‘frontrunners’, can stimulate out-of-the-box patterns of thinking, thereby creating space for discursive change” - Persch (2015: 386)

Outsides and regime actors are needed to open up the discursive space, which is needed to scale up a niche in order to radically change the regime level. This working of a transition within the multi-level perspective is shown in figure 4.

Figure 4: Multi-level perspective on transitions (Schot & Geels, 2006, - adapted from Geels 2002, 1263).

Niches are critical for succeeding a transition. According to Schot & Geels (2006) there are two states within niches: technological and market niches. The first one is the experimentation in its protective space, like an R&D laboratory. The latter arises when a technological niche is taken up by the market. In case the market take-up rises, it can shift the regime (figure 5).

Figure 5: From niche dynamics to regime shift (Schot & Geels, 2006, - adapted from Weber et al. 1999: 22).

Transition management is applied to realize a desired change in at the regime level. This desired future change is called a ‘vision’ (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2014), which is in the end the result of this assignment. It important not to confound the use of the concepts of vision, scenarios and predictions. Their different explanations and methods to get them in the picture are descripted in table 1.




Final results






Scenario building



Desirable future state

Possible future states

Likely future states

Process of creating a vision, i.e., a representation of a desirable future state

Identifying possible future states

Identifying likely future states

Pathways towards the desirable future state

Table 1: Key terms in making a strategy for  transition management (based on Wiek & Iwaniec, 2014: 497).

The function of the vision is used at the strategic level (figure 5). The vision makes it possible to identify the long term goals and solve problems in the long run. In order to realize the vision experiments, projects and innovations (concepts can be overlapping) have to be upscaled. Agenda-building and networking is need to structure the process of upscaling.


Figure 6: Multilevel approach to transition management (Kemp, Loorbach & Rotmans, 2007: 83).

 The Hague wants to transform to a circular city. In this course we describe their vision (strategic level), use backcasting in order to get pathways how to get their and the end-result is a agenda for 2017 how to make the first step in realizing this vision (operational level). Current experiments, projects and innovations (operational level) have to be identified. We can use them as outsiders (the agent) and niches (the real project) for upscaling to radically change the regime level. The identification of actors can also be used for the municipality to organize their multi-actor network (step 1, figure 2). We are currently in the pre-development phase (phase 1) and using existing innovations would take-off (phase 2), the transition.


Quality criteria for visioning in sustainability sciences

The creation of the vision is the first step in order to create pathways and identify useful niches for the transition. The vision can be seen as the construction of the house. Without a solid construction it is likely that the lifespan of the house is not that long. But how do you test if you vision is good enough? Wiek & Iwaniec (2013) identified ten quality criteria. These can be used as an reference framework in visioning approaches. The ten criteria are:

  1. Visionary; “A vision describes a desirable state in the future.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 4)
  2. Sustainable; “A specific type of visions. These visions ought to be not only desirable, but to guide us towards sustainability.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 4)
  3. Systemic; “[The vision] represents the individual parts of a desirable future state not independently, but as interconnected through underlying systemic relationships.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 5)
  4. Coherent; “A vision should be composed of compatible goals and free of inconsistencies and conflicts.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 5)
  5. Plausible; “Plausible visions that are grounded in ‘reality’ entails elements that (1) have been implemented in the past, or (2) elsewhere in the world, or (3) have been demonstrated to be realizable (concept proof), often through a pilot project or an extended peer-review process. [...] The criterion of plausibility aims at evidence-based visions.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 6)
  6. Tangible; “Visions need to be made tangible in order to become meaningful. [...] Abstract values and broad goals might provide an initial orientation, but they cannot substitute for a tangible vision.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 6)
  7. Relevant; “The ought to matter to the people for whom they imagine a desirable future.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 6)
  8. Nuanced; “A vision needs to reflect nuances of value-laden perspectives, which is usually captured through priorities. [...] Priorities simplify the vision by separating different clusters of desirability, which make it easier to comprehend complex visions.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 4)
  9. Motivation; “Visions ought to create buy-in and acceptance of the proposed changes, spark further development of the vision, and even motivate active participation in the implementation process.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 4)
  10. Shared; “The need for a vision [is] that a critical number of stakeholders can agree on in order to create a common reference point for action.” (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2013: 7)


The circular economy in the wood sector

In this chapter the question ‘What is wood in the circular economy and how is it applied by the Dutch wood sector?’ is answered.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013) gives an explanation of the circular economy, also summarized in figure 7. In their opinion all materials have to stay in a circular system. They see materials as either biological nutrients or technological nutrients. These nutrients run through their eponymous cycles. In the biological cycle materials are cascaded down during different usages and in the end returned as nutrients to the biosphere. In the technological cycle products have to be re-stored, re-used, re-furbished and re-cycled as much as possible. In the latter phase the materials in the product are used as resources for new products. This closes the cycle. Using fuels for energy production (or ‘recovery’) and dumping waste on landfills is seen as leakages out of the system and have to be minimized.

The material of wood will run through the biological cycle. According to the Foundation these materials are cascaded down, likely because of their deterioration and in the end used as nutrients for new trees. Incineration is seen as leakages out of the system. 

Figure 7: The circular economy an industrial system that is restorative by design (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013: 24)

The Dutch branch organization for carpenters state that “Wood is obviously part of the biological cycle. That makes it not just a building material with a long history, but especially wood is the future!” (NBvT, 2016). For them this is the great sound of more business. The timber industry is also investigating 'cascading'. They see cascading as useful to keep wood for longer in the cycle of the biological materials.

Virol (2016) acknowledged that the times when wood was unlimited available, are over. The supply of wood cannot keep up with the demand in the future. Therefor, re-use is essential. Innovations increase the recovery of used wood. According to Dijkhuis (2016) circularity has to be incorporated in the development phase of products and buildings to ensure that as much as possible of the materials used are from the biological cycle and that they can flow back into nature again after usage.

In short, according to people of the Dutch wood sector cascading, re-use and limited production possibilities for the increasing demand are key.


Vision on the future flows of wood

In our vision the use of wood is cascaded down through five stages: raw materials, boards, fibreboards, paper and energy (figure 8). In the best case scenario material stays as long as possible in one stage. In the end the nutrients in the ashes and the CO2 realized can be used to grow new production forests of wood. The stages are discussed below.

Figure 8: Impressing on the flow of wood in the vision (own work).


Stage 1: Raw materials

The first stage is the extraction of resources from nature. In the case of wood this is forestry. Our group thought of three main production sites:

  1. Production forests
  2. Production in cities
  3. Harvesting wood from ‘normal’ forests.

Production forests are forests planted just for harvesting wood. Each harvesting moment a large part of the forest get cut totally. Production in cities is the wood that gets free from maintenance (pruning) of trees in parks and streets. The last category is the removal of some trees in forest allocated as nature.

In the Netherlands the demand is higher than the supply, which makes it necessary to import a lot of wood (Nabuurs et al, 2016). Nabuurs et al (2016) calculated that even if no wood is directly incinerated for the production of energy and the internal production of wood is optimized, the Netherland would still need to import wood. Sustainable forestry and labelling is important to ensure the import of sustainable wood.


Stage 2: Boards

In our vision the second step is to make the raw resource ready in the production industry. We want the wood to be useful as long as possible. The appearance of the wood has to change as little as possible. The second stage is therefore to transform the raw resource into boards. These are not the pressurized fibreboards (e.g. MDF and particleboard), but the real wooden boards.

In this process the raw material has to be made in the correct shapes with boards and sawdust as result. The boards has to be used as long in this stage as possible. The sawdust can be used for the next stage, fibreboards. We still need to gather more technical knowledge about these possibilities. According to Hanekamp & Karsch (2010) a lot of sawdust is directly incinerated to provide energy for the wood drying process. Which is more sustainable? Incinerating the sawdust at the same location and having no emissions of the  transportation or transporting the sawdust and re-using it for the production of fibreboards. 

After the expiry of the period of use the wood becomes waste. Discarded wood is divided into three quality types: A, B and C wood (Virol, 2016; Recycling Platform, 2016).

A-wood: untreated wood;

B-wood, painted or glued wood;

C-wood, impregnated wood.


Currently, the highest quality type, A-wood (untreated) and part of the lower grade B-wood (glued, painted or dyed) lends itself for recycling, and often has a certain economic value. In some cases, you therefore receive compensation for the separate supply of this quality kind. A-wood and a fraction of the B-wood is often cut into chips. As chips both qualities of wood make its way into the circular economy. The wood fiber industry and the chipboard industry are the largest buyers. Not all qualities of wood can be recovered in the circular economy. The remaining B and C wood (impregnated or preserved) find a useful application in the circular economy as a raw material for biofuel for generating renewable energy. (Virol, 2016; Recycling Platform, 2016)

In our vision we want all the high-quality A and B-wood to be re-used in this stage. If the quality becomes too little, chips can be made of it in order to supply in the production process of fibreboards. The C-wood have to be incinerated in a separated power plant. In this way it doesn’t polluted the ashes out of the A and B wood (in latter stages). So, wood is collected in three main directions:

  1. Re-use as board
  2. Particleboard Manufacturing
  3. Fuel in power plants


Stage 3: Fibreboards

The Upstyle Wood Guide gives sustainability tips on recycling and reusing all types of wood. On fibreboards they state that MDF, OSB and particleboard are usually not reused or recycled. Reuse is difficult, because all damage easily and cannot be planed or cut without exposing the chips. According to them is recycling not possible and are those types of board usually incinerated or landfilled (Upstyle Wood Guide, 2016). In that case fibreboards can one used ones and cannot be recycled, only downcycled to paper.

However, Wood Based Panels International (2012) state that is possible to recycle the fibres in MDF and make new fibreboards, but for this process expensive plants are needed.


Stage 4: Paper

In the fourth stage the fibreboard waste is used as resource for paper. Another group is creating a vision on the circularity of paper. Details are not given to prevent disagreement.


Stage 5: Energy generation

The expectation of Probos is that the future demand for biomass to be used for the supply of energy in the biobased economy is bigger than the supply from used products, which implies that a direct supply of fresh cut wood is needed in order to supply in the demand for biomass. Wood used for energy is called energy wood. The expectation is that the demand for energy wood will increase by 319% due to the biobased economy. In this current bio-based policy local circularity will not be reached. (Nabuurs et al, 2016). 

In our vision energy wood won’t exists. Only wood that is not allowed by regulations to be downcycled into paper and papers are incinerated for energy.


Stage 6: Regeneration

In the final stage the ashes and the captured CO2 are used for growing new trees. This is the start of the new cycle. As long as the trees are grown within one generation it can be said that circularity is also sustainable. According to the definition of Brundtland the present generation cannot compromise the future generation. A new planted tree is not the same as a full grown tree. If the grow-rate is in balance with the harvesting rate we can speak of sustainable forestry. This is all about timing and the generation perspective.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland, 1987: 43)



It will be hard for the Hague to reach a circular material flow of wood. Consumption patterns are likely to increase and on a nationwide scale imported will be needed in the future (Nabuurs et al, 2016). The Hague does not appear to have an higher than average wood production, so it is likely almost a mission impossible to reach circularity. This will be further investigated in the next assignment.

The vision has not reached it final stage yet. It looks like that five quality criteria for visioning are met. The vision describes a desirable, sustainable future state in which the different components are interconnected and that the goals are compatible. The city of the Hague wants such a vision and there is a societal need to decrease the dependences on resources, which makes the vision relevant. There are still technological question left, which makes the vision less plausible and tangible. The vision is not yet attributed to different parties and priorities, which lack the criteria of nuance, motivation and shared.

In the next assignments the flow diagrams and socio technological systems are given. With that information the vision can be improved to match more quality criteria. When all quality criteria are met, the vision can be used to create pathways and action agendas into a circular the Hague.



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