KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

Circular Economy

How do we use biomass and food circularly?

Biomass plays a special role in the circular economy because it is fully recyclable and used as food, fuel and material. Closing biomass flows in the agri-food sector would make the Dutch living environment healthier and save the economy €6.5 billion a year in costs. So there are many opportunities for farmers, processors, retailers and other entrepreneurs who focus on circularity.

Biomass is a container term for raw materials of vegetable and animal origin. This includes crops from agriculture, water cultivation (such as algae) and forestry, as well as their residual flows in the chain of harvesting, consumption and final processing. Bioplastics and biofuels can be produced from biomass, but these themselves are not included in the definition. This article discusses the opportunities and barriers to closing biomass flows in the Netherlands, with an emphasis on the food chain.

Figure 1: Agriculture produces the most biomass in the Netherlands

The opportunities

Many companies earn by closing cycles. Strategies for circularity can be used along the entire food chain, from the farmer to the plate and beyond. There are three strategies that many entrepreneurs focus on:

  • Closing material cycles in companies, so that waste and purchasing costs are reduced;
  • Collecting waste streams, so that different fractions can be used separately and the whole increases in value;
  • Adding value to waste streams, such as by the creation of new products.

Below are four examples of earning models in the food chain and biomass processing.

On-farm recycling

An example at the beginning of the food chain is farm Eytemaheert van Maurits and Jessica Tepper. These dairy farmers have closed the largest flows of raw materials on their farms by feeding their cows with grass from their own meadows and nature reserves. They then keep this land fertile with the manure from the same cows. They do not use concentrates, so milk production is lower, but the quality is higher. The big advantage is that Maurits and Jessica save costs, because they do not buy cattle feed and/or manure. In addition, the emissions of nitrogen and greenhouse gases are significantly lower on their farms. The reason that not all milk is produced in the Netherlands in this way is because most dairy farmers do not have enough land available to farm.

Farmers who want to work with recycled agriculture can seek advice from WINK. This organisation offers tools and examples of nature-driven farmers with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.

Valuable residual flows from retail

A company that applies circularity to food processing is De Clique. This company collects food that restaurants and company caterers can no longer sell. De Clique then processes these residual flows into products such as essential oils and the breeding ground for oyster mushrooms. Residues still contain many valuable raw materials. The reason that not all residual flows are processed into new products is because the logistics for these types of flows still have to be developed and legislation often imposes many requirements on raw materials. Companies that find solutions to these barriers can unlock the value of these raw materials.

Food processors who want to add value to their residual flows can turn to Milgro. This company specializes in accessing raw materials from waste.

Minerals from the sewer

In order to really close the food chain, biomass from the sewerage system must eventually be used as a raw material for growing new food. One company that has found a suitable business model for this is Aquaminerals. This company was set up by a number of water boards and drinking water companies to extract raw materials from the sewers and process them into products. One of the products they make is struvite, a fertilizer containing magnesium and phosphorus that is extracted from wastewater.

Entrepreneurs with questions about the use of raw materials from water and the soil can contact the Soil Help Desk of Rijkswaterstraat.

Three products from wood chips

In 2018, the Avantium chemical group opened a pilot plant to valorise wood residues from Staatsbosbeheer. At the plant, the company is investigating with AkzoNobel, Chemport Europe and RWE, among others, how wood chips can be converted into mixed sugars, glucose and lignin. Mixed sugars are useful in the production of ethanol and acetic acid. Glucose is a basic raw material for the chemical industry and lignin a fuel with a very high energy value. In this way, three valuable streams are created from the wood chips supplied by Staatsbosbeheer. The consortium is now working towards a commercial plant in 2023, which will eventually be able to process 700,000 tonnes of biomass. When this is up and running, Staatsbosbeheer will be able to earn from the residual flows. This will give them money to manage their forests (Staatsbosbeheer, 2018).

Ecological and economic gains

Making biomass streams circular in the Netherlands would save billions in environmental costs, lost residual flows and food waste. Agriculture, which produces most biomass in the Netherlands, generates €6.5 billion in costs each year due to emissions of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and other substances (Figure 2). These emissions are so high because the Netherlands imports more nutrients than the natural system can process (figure 3). The vast majority of farmers (80%) are happy to switch to nature-friendly production methods, provided consumers and supermarkets pay extra for this (Trouw, 2018). With the right market incentives, therefore, environmental costs can be greatly reduced while the farmer’s satisfaction will increase.

In addition to saving on environmental costs, money can also be saved by reducing waste streams. For example, Dutch consumers and processors throw away food worth €4.5 billion every year (Natuur & Milieu, 2016). Residual flows that can no longer be used as food can still be valorised. Many residual flows are already being processed in the agri-food sector. Investments in biorefinery techniques, the extraction of biogas and the more intensive separation of household waste can further increase this value added (Bastein, 2013). The economic, ecological and even social opportunities for making biomass flows circular are therefore considerable.

Figure 2: Monetary environmental damage caused by agriculture in 2015 (PBL, 2018)

Nitrogen as an example

In 2017, 712 million kg of nitrogen was imported into the Netherlands for agriculture, most of it in the form of concentrates and fertilisers (see Figure 3). However, only 43% of this nitrogen is reused after use as roughage and on cultivated land. The largest part, namely 57%, leaves the system as air and soil pollution, food and fuel.

The nitrogen that now leaves the system as air and soil pollution can be captured and reused by farming in an ecological way. The nitrogen that leaves the system as food can be collected from the sewer after consumption and used as manure. As a result of these two interventions, less nitrogen needs to be imported and less environmental damage is caused. At the moment, however, importing roughage and fertilizer is even cheaper, so this is not being done.

Figuur 2: Stikstof in biomassastromen van de Nederlandse landbouw in 2017 (CBS, 2019)

Nitrogen consumption is a good illustration of the scale on which raw materials from biomass are wasted in the Netherlands. Plants and animals use nitrogen in the growth of their cells. In natural conditions nitrogen is a limiting factor for this growth. In the Netherlands, however, there is such a surplus that nitrogen causes damage to the environment and human health.

The barriers

Farmers’ organisations, businesses and policymakers in the Netherlands have explicitly spoken out in favour of a circular food chain, for example through the Alliance for Sustainable Food, but three barriers make this sustainability a challenge: an uneven playing field, legislation and awareness (Taskforce Verdienvermogen Kringloopnbouw, 2019).

Uneven playing field

The first barrier hampering the circular transition is the uneven playing field between more and less circular companies. The reason is that negative externalities (such as nitrogen and phosphate emissions) are not priced and positive externalities (such as contributing to landscape management) are not rewarded. However, these externalities are difficult to offset on a Dutch or European scale, due to the openness of our economy. For example, three quarters of our agricultural products are exported and more than half of the food we eat is imported. Products of Dutch companies would become much more expensive if externalities were included in the price only here. For the time being, it is politically unfeasible to include externalities on an international scale. In addition, the market position of farmers in particular is generally weak, because they supply a generic product and the law prohibits them from making price agreements between themselves. As a result, sustainable innovations must be cost-effective if they are to be implemented on a large scale.


A second step that makes sustainability of the food chain challenging is legislation. Many laws and regulations regard residual flows as waste, as a result of which these raw materials may only be processed to a limited extent in new products.


The third step to achieve sustainability in the food and biomass chain is to raise awareness throughout the chain. Creating a level playing field and the right legislation requires support from politicians and citizens. To achieve this, it is important that people know where the bottlenecks and opportunities lie.


In order to scale up and expand initiatives of this kind, the government presented its vision for a circular food system in the autumn of 2018, under the heading of circular agriculture (Rijksoverheid, 2018). According to Wageningen University, circular agriculture means that we retain agricultural biomass and the nutrients stored in it in the food system (WUR, 2018). The government has also had the Transition Agenda for Biomass and Food drawn up. The vision of Recycling Agriculture and the Transition Agenda are now being worked out in more detail.