Over 25 years ago, a group of Dutch water companies came together to make the most of the waste they were generating – and now they barely consider it waste at all.
AquaMinerals was born out of a waste problem. Different water drinking companies were producing sludges – and other solid wastes – from their production processes and decided to join forces in dealing with the high costs of disposal.
A quarter of a century later and the Dutch water reuse company is transforming the residuals into a range of raw materials for new products – like liming pellets for gardening, cosmetics and glass bottles.
“A wheel started spinning faster and faster because the first success lead to the next one,” said Olaf van der Kolk, director of AquaMinerals.
Growing from an initial two employees into a team of eighteen, the company is now reclaiming and reselling circular products for over 10 different sectors. Van der Kolk acknowledges that the Dutch company’s origins were initially about saving costs, but over the years it became clear that AquaMinerals had tapped into a valuable emerging market – one that turned out to be the circular economy of the water sector.
AquaMinerals soon began to benefit from a growing corporate desire to improve sustainability as well as stricter environmental legislation, a situation that saw the business able to sell some of their circular materials as premium high-end products.
“If a company wants to make transition from a linear economy towards a circular economy, it searches for good, high quality, secondary raw material and when they are scarce, it means the value goes up,” Van der Kolk said.
But AquaMinerals are still at the mercy of the market with some of their products and they must sell at a price cheaper than bigger competitors. Luckily, a lot of the costs they incur are covered by the founding drinking companies, who in turn, benefit from the revenue streams of AquaMineral’s overall portfolio.
This corporate cooperative structure is one of several factors that played to AquaMinerals favour, which Van der Kolk says could help other sectors and countries replicate their success.
“When you start, it’s always inefficient, or the scale is too low,” he said, adding that securing a steady flow of raw material, research and identifying sustained business are keys to circularity.
With these blocks in place a circular economy for the water sector can begin to take off, but Van der Kolk also warns of one element that risks sending mixed, and costly, signals to businesses hoping to upscale waste.
“Politicians are ambitious, but the people writing the legislation and enforcing the laws can make things difficult,” he said. “Reusing waste requires a lot of knowledge about legislation and proof, which is expensive and sometimes too complex for a commercial company to pursue.”
Van der Kolk would like clearer and simpler legislation –without risks for the environment – coming from the Dutch government and the European Union, which he thinks would make it easier for more businesses to reclaim and reuse waste streams – something that he think would allowing the circular economy of water to really take off. “Our economy needs to be completely circular,” he said.