Netherlands Maritime Technology : The oldest circular economy in the world



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‘Circular economy’ is something more and more people and companies are talking about. Did you know that our sector is the oldest circular economy in the world? Circular economy is not a buzz word, it has been around for centuries. There are several definitions for circular economy, but they all agree on: try to re-use resources as much as possible and minimize waste. And as you will see, that is much more than just recycling the old metal from recycled ships.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation made a wonderful circular economy system diagram. The left part shows the use of renewables, the right part shows the use of finite materials. The latter is of importance for our industry is on the right side (see image).

When a product (in our case a ship) is used, the user will prolong the lifetime by doing regular maintenance. This is either done by himself or a maritime service provider. This is shown as the inner circle. When this is no longer sufficient, the ship owner will decide to overhaul or upgrade certain systems. Old parts can be re-used when doing so and if a complete new system is installed, the old parts are re-used or recycled by the equipment provider or the ship yard.

At one point in time a ship is still economically viable but needs a retrofit/conversion to perform better (environmentally and/or economically) or a lifetime extension to get it to up to date standard. This is called refurbishment or remanufacturing in the diagram. The three inner circles are core business for our industry since long gone times.

At the very end of its lifetime a ship is recycled and the vast majority of its materials are re-used. This closes the last loop in the diagram. At all four loops the amount of waste is minimized, completely in line with the philosophy of the circular economy.

Society has only been aware of the circular economy since the last decade. However our industry both in the Netherlands as well as in Europe has been doing this for ages. The circular economy is in the veins of this industry, for centuries already. A nice example can be found in the ‘Rijksmuseum’ in Amsterdam where a painting by Pieter Godfried Bertichen shows the shipyard ‘St Jago’ on Bickers Island in Amsterdam in 1823 where the ship Anna en Maria van Amsterdam is tilted (and not capsized!) for maintenance. We should propose to add to the nameplate: ‘Ship maintenance, repair and conversion: the oldest circular economy in the world!’

Sander den Heijer
Sector manager at Netherlands Maritime Technology and executive secretary of SEA SMRC: a European association that serves the interests of the European ship repair industry in Brussels