Jacqueline Cramer: 'Chemistry is important for the circular economy'

Basic chemistry research provides perspective on future sustainable development

6 September 2016

On 23 September, Professor Jacqueline Cramer, UvA alumna and sustainability icon, will participate in the Sustainability Workshop, organised by the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC) and the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS). She will speak on the challenges and opportunities of the circular economy, particularly within the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.

Jacqueline Cramer

Jacqueline Cramer: 'My aim is to make this metropolitan area a hotspot for the efficient use of resources, the recycling of products and the sustainable reprocessing of waste.'

Wat are your feelings on chemistry?

Upon having to decide what to study in 1970, I wasn't sure whether to choose chemistry or biology. I eventually chose the latter. Both scientific disciplines, however, are important for solving environmental issues – already my main driver back then. Chemistry is a beautiful science that has developed into a strongly interdisciplinary molecular science with plenty of links to sustainability.

Since the 1960s, the beauty of chemistry has for a long time been obscured by the environmental issues accompanying chemical activities. The good thing is that chemists, following criticism from society, have gained extensive experience in finding the right solutions for this. As a consultant, I’ve advised a large number of chemical companies on issues of sustainability. In recent years the industry has become well aware of its pivotal role in creating a sustainable future. The biobased economy, based on natural resources instead of fossil fuels, is a perfect example of this.

As member of the Amsterdam Economic Board, you are the ‘ambassador for the circular economy in the metropolitan area’. Do you see any interfaces with chemistry in this respect?

My ambition is to make this a leading region with respect to the circular economy and to bring our experience and knowhow to the rest of the world. For instance, I'm closely involved in projects on biomass cultivation and the high-quality reprocessing of waste. In the Netherlands, we’re quite proficient in recycling, but we often lose value - for instance when construction waste is used for paving roads. In the end, it’s far better to use waste as a resource for the same products. This provides ample opportunity for chemistry. For example, think of separations and the question of how to handle traces of medicine in used incontinence diapers. Problems like that can only be solved with chemistry.

I was quite surprised by the amount of biomass waste in this region. This concerns biodegradable domestic waste, but also waste from agriculture and the food industry, and even water plants that are 'harvested' to prevent them from impeding shipping. Chemistry has an important role in closing the circle and ensuring all this waste is used to produce novel resource materials that provide new molecular building blocks for new products. We are, for instance, currently working on a ‘biorefinery’ that will make this concept a reality.

Another example lies in the materials cycle of mattresses. These are now recycled in a mechanical way: the foam is being shredded and re-used in a product that, unfortunately, turns out to be hard to sell. It might be useful to find ways to chemically recycle mattresses. Furthermore, it would be wise to explore, in cooperation with the manufacturers, the use of alternative materials that enable high value recycling. This is all a matter of chemistry.

Your examples are all quite concrete and practical. How do you assess the relevance of basic chemistry research performed at the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry, the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences, and the UvA’s Sustainable Chemistry research priority?

Yes, I’m very practical minded. The thing is though, until new possibilities are discovered in future, we’ll have to make do with current technology. It is vital for us to have a long-term vision, so that we’ll be able to implement new possibilities when they arise. That's why I'm immensely interested in future developments.

I believe the challenge for basic research is to be inspired by our current everyday problems. I think that the performance in virtually all aspects of the circular economy will be much better if we can achieve real innovation. This is even more true for the biobased economy, where quite fundamental issues have to be solved before we’ll be able to manufacture the products of today with the natural resources of tomorrow. One of these is the development of new catalytic processes that will be able to process all the various types of biomass.

A key thing to keep in mind with respect to sustainable innovation is that you have to avoid investing in something that could quickly turn out to be obsolete. It would leave you 'locked-in' with a technology that is rapidly replaced by the next generation. That's why it is important to be in touch with basic researchers. They are the ones who can provide a perspective on future sustainable development: where is it heading, what are the technological ambitions? It helps us to anticipate on future developments. This interaction is tremendously important!

Biography Jacqueline Cramer

Jacqueline Cramer is a UvA graduate in Biology. She is professor of Sustainable Innovation at Utrecht University and strategic adviser of the Utrecht Sustainability Institute. As member of the Amsterdam Economic Board, she advocates and stimulates the development of a circular economy in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. Cramer has held part-time chairs at various Dutch universities and has advised more than 150 companies regarding environmental management issues and corporate social responsibility.  From 2007 to 2010, she was Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. She is member of various (inter)national advisory boards of government, industry and non-profit organisations.

Published by  Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry