Business models for recycling?

Published on 02 March 2018

According to the passionate Professor Jan Jonker, recycling needs to go beyond the material aspect. He believes that a circular economy also requires a new look at today’s business models.


Tekst Jan Jonker

Jan Jonker

Jan Jonker

Professor Dr. Jan Jonker is a Professor of Sustainable Entrepreneurship at the Radboud University Nijmegen. He devotes his time and energy to sustainable business practices and the corresponding strategic, organisational and change issues. Jan is known as an activistic and enterprising professor 'in a hurry', who wants to take a radical approach to sustainability issues and wants it 'now'.

The concept of recycling leads to territorial expansion. This is a good thing. Recycling originally pertained to the reuse of anything and everything in the material sense. It began with paper (who hasn’t earned pocket money during school holidays going from house to house collecting newspapers?), followed by metal, glass and plastic heroes. But it sometimes seems as if we have ‘just’ discovered this branch of sport. The near future will be all about such exciting concepts as urban mining and ambient energy harvesting, with the breakthrough of coffee grounds reuse for mushroom cultivation and sawdust for palletisation in the meantime.

Linear to become circular

An exciting adjoining development is that we are progressing from a life cycle analysis (see, for example, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan) to a life-(re)cycle-use-analysis. In a nutshell, this means that we no longer consider only production, but life cycle use in terms of raw materials, production, energy consumption and recycle value. Some (see, for example, the TurnToo project) would like us to stop buying products altogether and instead only pay for such things as heat, comfort and transport. This approach clearly entails a transition from a linear (waste) economy to a circular (reuse) economy.

Linear to become circular

An exciting adjoining development is that we are progressing from a life cycle analysis (see, for example, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan) to a life-(re)cycle-use-analysis. In a nutshell, this means that we no longer consider only production, but life cycle use in terms of raw materials, production, energy consumption and recycle value. Some (see, for example, the TurnToo project) would like us to stop buying products altogether and instead only pay for such things as heat, comfort and transport. This approach clearly entails a transition from a linear (waste) economy to a circular (reuse) economy.

A different approach to organisation means a different approach to earning

Yet the question remains as to whether this form of recycling is sufficient for the upcoming shortages of scarce resources, as well as water and oil. Does this not require a much more radical, far-reaching approach? Has the time not come to also recycling the concepts on which our economic thinking is based? After all, if a linear economy leads to linear business models, then a circular economy should at the very least lead to an overhaul of business models, right? In other words, a different approach to organisation means a different approach to ‘earning’. There is in fact support for this notion.

Kilowatt hours as pension

Today’s multiple crises keenly show that money is no longer what it used to be. Money has become a vulnerable concept as earning has come to a screeching halt, we no longer talk in terms of indexing and our pension has not been growing for quite some time now. But if we relinquish all of our ideas about value and translate them into a much better balanced ‘value portfolio’, other types of wealth are possible. Why not rent out your roof for solar panels and convert the yield into kWh, to be paid out as a form of pension? Why not spend the remaining hours of the day caring for third parties, earning ‘care tokens’ along the way? Or why not pay for mobility with fruits and vegetables?

Is this simply comparing apples and oranges? It all depends on how you look at it. After all, a truly different type of economy - a direction in which we are moving - also requires the recycling of the business model on which the old economy is based. Naturally, this will take some getting used to. But it is definitely a very exciting and challenging development in an age in which we are forced to closely reconsider a large number of common practices.

"But if we relinquish all of our ideas about value and translate them into a much better balanced 'value portfolio', other types of wealth are possible."