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Ester van der Voet appointed professor of Sustainable Resource Use

The energy transition is already a huge challenge for society, but sustainable use of resources is even more complicated. Yet it is at least as urgent. Ester van der Voet has been working on it for decades, for example within the United Nations. Since February, she is a professor at the Centre for Environmental Sciences Leiden (CML).

Metals in electronics are becoming scarce. Steel and concrete cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions with current production methods. Plastic ends up in every nook and cranny of ecosystems after use. This has been known since the report of the Club of Rome in 1972. Fortunately, Van der Voet is not cynical about the fact that it is fifty years later that the first Dutch chair in this field is held. 'These things go slowly, there's nothing you can do about it.'

Familiar face

She is certainly not to blame, as Van der Voet has been calling attention to it since the early 1990s. According to CML director Arnold Tukker, Van der Voet has been a familiar face around the world for years.For example as a member of the UN International Resource Panel, the equivalent of the well-known climate panel IPCC. She also made crucial contributions to the Integral Circular Economy Report for the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Van der Voet develops methods for material flow analysis and draws up scenarios for the use of raw materials. She turns science into information that matters nationally and internationally, up to the highest political level.'

Clashing sustainability goals

Why is it so difficult to improve our lives when it comes to raw materials? Van der Voet: 'The UN sustainability goals are about a cleaner environment and protecting nature and the climate. This means that the use of raw materials must be reduced. On the other hand, the eradication of poverty is also one of these goals. That sometimes clashes. In many areas in Africa and India, for example, there is still no infrastructure or good housing. To achieve these, an enormous amount of resources is needed. Thinking about this is still very much in its early stages.'

We are leaving a lot of copper untouched

Van der Voet does not have the ultimate solution, but she considers the circular economy to be a good idea. 'We have to work with what’s already been mined from the ground.' She sees a lot that could be done better. 'Take old electricity cables in residential areas. We leave them lying around, when we could be reusing all that copper.'

The city can in fact be regarded as a mine, and Van der Voet is doing a lot of research into this urban mine. ‘We know a lot about extraction and production, but too little about the use phase and what remains afterwards, and how we can recover and reuse materials.’

125 students per year

Progress is also being made. 'We are now obligated by the EU to keep track of how much electronic waste we produce. Recycling is taking off. You can hand in your old phone at Wecycle, although many are still in people's drawers: hibernating stocks.' 

Interest in the subject is growing. With the three courses Van der Voet teaches, annually a total of 125 students participate. 'Actually more students want to participate, there is more interest than we can handle.'

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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