The Covid-19 pandemic has brought crisis, but is it creating a period of transition which will have long-term effects on the water industry, asks Roelof Kruize, CEO of Amsterdam water utility, Waternet.
Covid-19 bringing societal change
This year has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. When you put on the news it is almost only about Covid-19. Every person, every industry, including ours, is in crisis, but should we also ask whether this isn’t just a crisis, but a period of transition?
Crisis, transition, I think both are true. The crisis of the threat to life, and the health, societal and economic disruption this has caused. It has also impacted greatly on our day-to-day work because we are limited in our social contacts and possibilities to communicate in person. So, this is also a wake-up call while, arguably, offering a stimulus for transition.
During the last 50 years we saw rapid urbanisation across the world. At this moment, more than 50 per cent of the world’s population is living in cities. Social mobility had been on the up for years: people in search of work, or higher paid work, moved from the rural areas to the cities, hoping to get a job and a better life.
Now we are seeing a new trend: rich people leaving the city because they can work online from any place. Look for instance at New York. Facebook decided that it should close its offices and work only online. I am sure other companies will follow.
My own company, Waternet, the Amsterdam water cycle company, will go for a hybrid situation with more than 50 per cent of the work carried out online from home. How does this trend affect the water services, the climate adaptation, the energy transition and the transition to a circular economy?
Changing how we look at wastewater
Let me focus on the transition to a circular economy. We have seen a lot of innovations to recover resources from waste and wastewater. Waternet recovers phosphate from wastewater. We have a pilot plant to produce protein from wastewater and have a research programme for producing cellulose and bioplastics from wastewater. Until now it has been difficult to achieve a good business model for these resources, mainly because recovered resources are more expensive than resources from mining.
The Covid-19 pandemic clearly shows that Europe is very much dependent on raw materials from outside Europe; China is in a far better position from this point of view. Europe should therefore become less dependent on raw materials and stimulate the production of recovered materials. If all wastewater treatment plants in the Netherlands were to recover phosphate, we would have enough fertilizer for our food production.
“If all wastewater treatment plants in the Netherlands were to recover phosphate, we would have enough fertilizer for our food production.”
After the Second World War, Europe decided it should ensure it was able to feed its own population, and thus stimulated food production. I believe the same strategy is necessary regarding the production of materials. Waste and wastewater are an important source of materials.
I hope Covid-19 proves to be a wake-up call to stimulate the circular economy in this way. Not only from a political point of view, to be independent as I described, but of course also from a sustainable point of view.
Let’s change our mindset and see water treatment as a unique opportunity for the production of raw materials. This would be an example of how this crisis has brought about transition, and opportunities we shouldn’t ignore.