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Because walking the walk is better than talking the talk, VUB joined the Green Deal Circular Purchasing two years ago. We asked VUB sustainability coordinator Rebecca Lefevere what circular purchasing entails, what advantages it offers and what challenges it presents.
Text: Linda A. Thompson
“Circularity means abandoning the traditional linear consumption model of buying, using and throwing away. Instead, from the very first step we consider how a purchased item will be used: Can it be shared, reused or recycled? Such an approach requires inventiveness and the audacity to rethink longstanding habits.”
How has the VUB embraced circularity exactly?
“Sustainability is a recurring thread in the university’s strategic plan for 2030. We are committed to radical sustainability as our ambition is to lower our CO2 emissions and to become carbon-neutral. We want to reach those two goals by prioritising smart energy use and by moving toward zero emissions when it comes to purchasing and mobility.
Sustainable, waste-free purchasing is mentioned as one of our objectives in the strategic plan. Circularity, in other words, is reflected in our policies. In terms of purchasing, that means aiming toward circular processes. You only buy what you need, throw away as little as possible and minimise waste. Those are the principles behind circular purchasing.”
So what sorts of circular purchases has the VUB made?
“Our showpiece for circular purchasing is the renovation of the Braem building. All of the building’s woodwork will have to be replaced and we’ve opted for Accoya wood. It sounds exotic but it’s actually a fast-growing, European pine tree, so already no transcontinental sea transport is required. And because it’s been made durable with a special biochemical treatment, the wood lasts longer than the time it took to grow the tree it came from. The wood can also be reused at the end of a building’s lifetime. Should reusing the wood be impossible because it’s too heavily damaged, it’s good to know that Accoya is biodegradable.”
“The VUB GreenTeam also organised a giveaway of sorts to get rid of all the furniture on the first two floors of the Braem building. As a result, most of the smaller items like the cabinets and chairs didn’t have to be thrown away, but instead received a second life in the hands of students. So rather than generating waste, we were able to ensure our office items were reused. Plus, our students didn’t have to buy new furniture. A couple of desks were also completely refurbished as nearly new offices by NNOF, a circular company based near Brussels.”
Is circular purchasing difficult?
“This is certainly one of the most difficult challenges we’ve embarked upon. As a university, we have to operate within the confines of the legislation on public contracts. But this law says that you have to request bids and award the bid to the contractor with the cheapest offer. But that, of course, doesn’t make that much sense because the cheapest product also tends to fall apart after a short while. And that flies in the face of a circular approach.
So you have to be inventive and go back to the drawing board. Before you make a purchase, you need to ask yourself: Should I even buy this product or can I also lease it? You also have to adjust the way you write requests for bids. Because this is all so new, there also aren’t a lot of good examples. That’s why, as a university, we joined the Green Deal Circular Purchasing learning network launched by Vlaanderen Circulair, The Shift and BBL to figure out how to go about all this together with other organisations.”
Why is it important for a university like the VUB to embrace circularity?
As a university, we have an incredibly important role when it comes to training tomorrow’s citizens. We have to send students into the world with the right attitudes and they include those of a sustainability-minded citizen of the world.
So as a university, we have to teach by example. It’s easy to preach certain approaches as an institution of higher education, but if students notice that their own university isn’t walking the talk, that message will be off. That’s why we believe it is so important to integrate circularity across all our operations – no matter how complex that may be.
Call to action
Would you like to do something around circularity? Write a request for bids that prioritises smart purchasing? Or maybe have an idea for a project that could put a dent in existing waste streams? Get in touch with the Core Group Sustainability at firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to support you in your plans and can help you get in touch with the right individuals.