Material efficiency is one of the major challenges facing our society in the twenty-first century. Research can help to understand how we can make the transition towards a material-efficient society. This study focuses on the role of the government in such transition processes. Use is made of literature in the field of public administration and innovation literature, particularly transition management. On the basis of three Dutch examples (plastics, e-waste and bio-energy), the complex system change towards a material-efficient society will be reflected upon. These case studies underline the need for a tailor-made governance approach instead of a top-down government approach to enhance material efficiency in practice. The role of the government is not restricted to formulating policies and then leaving it up to other actors to implement these policies. Instead, it is a continuous interplay between the different actors during the whole implementation process. As such, the government's role is to steer the development in the desired direction and orchestrate the process from beginning to end. In order to govern with a better compass, scientifically underpinned guiding principles and indicators are needed. This is a challenge for researchers both in public administration and in transition management.
Material efficiency is one of the major challenges facing our society in the twenty-first century. The growth of wealth and the world population leads to increasing material consumption. As the supply of resources is limited, our natural resource base is being eroded. Growing global demand increases the pressure on the environment, whereas competition for many resources is simultaneously escalating. This trend cannot continue, if we respect the need of future generations to fulfil their material needs as well. Therefore, our production and consumption patterns should become more material efficient.
Research can help to understand how we can make the transition towards a material-efficient society. Numerous studies have been published on the need for material efficiency [1–3]. A growing volume of literature has been published on the technological possibilities to reduce the material intensity of products and replace materials by more ecologically sound ones. The recent book of Allwood & Cullen  gives a comprehensive overview of such options. In addition, various papers have been published on policy instruments to promote resource efficiency  and on policy support for innovations in resource productivity . However, understanding why and how we should increase material efficiency in theory does not tell us how the transition towards sustainable use of materials can be realized in practice. The literature has paid less attention to this latter issue. This paper deals with bridging the gap between theory and practice in realizing a more material-efficient society. The specific focus will be on the role of the government in such transition processes. Use will be made of literature in the field of public administration and innovation literature, particularly transition management. On the basis of three Dutch examples (plastics, e-waste and bio-energy), the complex system change towards a material-efficient society will be reflected upon. These case studies underline the need for a tailor-made governance instead of a top-down government approach.
2. European Union policies on material efficiency
Material efficiency is one of the main roads towards sustainable development. The concept means using the Earth's limited resources in a sustainable manner. This implies the closing of material cycles and prudent use of raw materials for both production and consumption. Many natural resources are fundamental to our health, well-being and quality of life. We depend on resources such as metals, minerals, fuels, water, timber, fertile soil, energy and clean air for our survival, and they all constitute vital inputs that keep our economy functioning.
The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe  under the Europe 2020 strategy supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth. The document stresses that continuing our current patterns of resource use is not an option. It states that ‘increasing resource efficiency is key to securing growth and jobs for Europe’.
The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas, supporting policy agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. This is to increase certainty for investment and innovation as well as to ensure that all relevant policies factor in resource efficiency in a balanced manner. One of the building blocks of this flagship initiative is the European Commission's Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe , a communication adopted on 20 September 2011.
The Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe describes the way in which future actions can be designed and implemented coherently. It sets out a vision for the structural and technological change needed up to 2050, with milestones to be reached by 2020. These milestones illustrate what will be needed to put Europe on a path to resource-efficient, and sustainable, growth.
According to the European Commission, it is perfectly possible to produce more value with fewer inputs, to lessen our impact on the environment, and to consume in a more intelligent fashion. We can use more efficient alternatives instead of many of the current resources, and we are, for example, able to boost recycling. However, the European Commission emphasizes that if the ‘European society is to become more resource-efficient, millions of firms and consumers will need to be mobilized. Prices need to change to better reflect environmental and social costs: this would improve the economic system, providing the right incentives as well as price signals for both producers and consumers. Most importantly, coherent public policies must be put in place to enable such a reform and push it forward’ (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/resource_efficiency).
Within the framework of the Roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe, every European Union (EU) member state has formulated its own step-by-step plan for enhancing resource efficiency. This promotes the active involvement of EU member states on the road to a resource-efficient Europe.
3. The Dutch policy on resources
In congruence with EU policies, The Netherlands has formulated the Dutch policy document on resources in 2011 . This document stresses that ‘our economy depends on raw materials. A threat to availability can lead to unpredictable fluctuations in price and quality (…). As well as risks, there are also clear opportunities. As it becomes more difficult to access scarce raw materials, the significance of re-use and substitution increases. Innovation is a key concept here. The Dutch economy is well placed to exploit these opportunities and to turn the growing global shortage of raw materials into a comparative advantage. The Netherlands (…) has a well-developed infrastructure for recycling and (…) has also already embarked on the process of transition towards a bio-based economy’ , pp. 6–7.
The raw materials policy of the Dutch government is part of a broader agenda on chain-oriented product management, which was formulated in 2008. This agenda aimed to integrate policies on waste and product management in order to cover the whole product life cycle. Experiences had shown that separate policies for the different aspects of product life cycle management led to suboptimal results, and fragmented implementation. However, through this integrated, chain-oriented product management approach, the Dutch government now has to deal with a more complex policy environment. In fact, it entails the transition towards a sustainable production and consumption system. In order to enhance this policy, the Dutch government has focused on specific product groups, which presently have a relatively high environmental impact or can play an exemplary role in closing material cycles. Examples of such product groups are: plastics, e-waste and bio-energy.
On the basis of these three examples, this study will discuss how the Dutch government policies to close material cycles have been implemented in the course of time. As these policies aim at a transition towards more sustainable production and consumption, an innovative manner of government steering is needed. It does not suffice to rely upon merely hierarchical government intervention. Instead, it also needs the involvement of stakeholders via the governance of ‘transition processes’. What this notion implies theoretically will be discussed below.
4. Theoretical concepts
The governance of transition processes relates to both public administration and innovation research.
‘Governance’ is increasingly accepted in the field of public administration as an organizing concept for public management reform. According to Hill & Lynn , it reflects a widespread, though not universal, belief that the focus of administrative practice is shifting from hierarchical government toward greater reliance on horizontal, hybridized and associational forms of governance. It creates participatory modes of governance among a multitude of actors—public and private—involving all relevant stakeholders . Similarly, Osborne  argues that the dominance of the ‘rule of law’ and a central role for the bureaucracy in making and implementing policy is gradually replaced by public policy, focused on how policy elites and networks interact to create and govern the public policy process. This means that in the field of public administration, policymaking is no longer seen as a purely ‘top-down’ process, but rather as a negotiation between many interacting policy systems . Empirical evidence, however, shows that this oft-claimed shift from government to governance appears overstated . In practice, governance is a more delicate, tailor-made manner of government intervention, in which hierarchical governance is combined with networked aspects of governance.
‘The management of transition processes’ is a timely topic in innovation research, particularly when addressing the issue of how and why new innovation systems come into being. As the shift towards sustainable production and consumption requires radical system changes , the transition towards sustainability is a focal area of innovation research. Various studies analyse the transition management of processes of change towards sustainable innovation systems. The work carried out in the context of the Dutch Knowledge Network on Systems Innovation and Transition has provided valuable insights into the theoretical approaches developed in transition management .
Based on the literature on transition management, a number of guiding principles can be derived.
— All relevant actors should be involved in the change process.
— Changes should take place at the micro, meso and macro levels.
— A long-term vision should guide the short-term actions.
— There should be room for experimenting and learning, as a transition process cannot follow a predetermined path. It is not a top-down manner of managing, but rather a subtle way of governing towards a more sustainable state. One should continuously adapt, learn and respond to new situations. In turn, learning is crucial in the pursuit of sustainable development.
— Connections should be made between innovative practice experiments and changes at the regime level.
— One should be aware of the context specificity, the selection and empowerment of front-runners and the composition of a transitional arena.
Each transition management process consists of a step-by-step approach, starting with:
— problem structuring and organization of a transition arena; then
— drafting a transition agenda, visioning and the identification of transition paths; followed by
— defining and performing transition experiments through mobilizing networks; and finally,
— monitoring, evaluating and lesson drawing.
In The Netherlands, this transition management approach was also adopted in implementing policies aimed at closing material loops and increasing material efficiency. On the basis of three examples (plastic, e-waste and bio-energy), the learning experiences with transition management will be reflected upon.
(a) Case 1: closing the loop of plastics
The Netherlands started relatively late compared with other EU countries with initiatives to close the loop of plastics. While recycling of industrial plastics was well on its way, the collection and recycling of plastic waste of consumers lagged behind. Until 2007, the primary focus was on recycling plastic polyethylene terephtalate (PET) bottles. Owing to a refund system, practically, all bottles were brought back to the retailer and recycled. Although the recycling of big plastic bottles was a success story, the remaining plastic waste of households was incinerated. Environmental life-cycle studies showed that recycling of all plastic waste streams had a positive environmental impact and also increased the involvement of consumers in sustainability. In order to extend the plastic recycling efforts from bottles to all plastic packaging consumer waste, a transition process had to be set up.
First, it had to be assured that the plastic waste stream could be separated into various plastic fractions (PET, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene and others). Otherwise, it would not be possible to produce materials that could compete with virgin materials. While separation technologies did not exist 20 years ago, new scanning techniques were now available to overcome this obstacle. Subsequently, the problem how to finance the collection and recycling of all plastic packaging waste had to be tackled. In The wake of political debate in the Parliament, it was decided to increase the packaging tax on virgin packaging material. After the technological and financial hurdles were overcome, the societal debate focused on how to implement the new collection and recycling system. Negotiations started with more than 350 municipalities to mobilize the support of local government. In The Netherlands, every municipality is autonomous in deciding whether they want to join. Following numerous debates with representatives of local government and the packaging industry, consensus grew about the organization and financing of the entire plastic recycling system. Part of the deal was that the refund system for the plastic bottles would be abandoned. The argument was that in the end, the plastic bottles would be recycled in a similar production process as the other plastic packaging waste streams, since years ago refilling of plastic bottles had stopped. Moreover, for retailers, the refund system was a burden and a logistic problem.
While nearing a consensus with the main stakeholders, Dutch Parliamentarians expressed their criticisms. Some were afraid that the abolition of the refund system would lower the collection rate of plastic bottles. They were in favour of two separate systems: collection of plastic bottles through a refund system, and the rest of the plastic waste via a collection system organized by the municipality. In the end, a majority of Parliament voted, for efficiency and economic reasons, in favour of just one system. After that problem had been settled, a second issue was raised: should consumers separate plastic waste at the source or should the plastic waste be separated after the disposal of household waste? It was expected that the latter option would be less environmentally friendly. However, the only way to solve the debate, in practice, was to test the case.
Since 2009, the new recycling system has been operating in The Netherlands. A first factory for plastic recycling has been set up, consumers are engaged and practically all municipalities participate in collecting the plastic waste. Whether the national government can withdraw its attention and governance role, is still to be seen. Owing to budget cuts, new financial arrangements are necessary. Moreover, final decisions about the collection system—at source or later in the process—still have to be made.
What do we learn from this case? It shows the multi-actor and multi-layer governance process and the unexpected changes in the political debate. The first step in the process—formulating the objectives and strategy—is relatively easy. However, further down in the decision-making process, many obstacles have to be overcome. Conflicting interests, political hobby horses and scientific uncertainty were among the influences determining the course of the decision-making process. The national government had to intervene with tax measures and regulation to steer the process, while at the same time, multiple stakeholders influenced the outcome.
(b) Case 2: closing the loop of e-waste
One of the sectors with a relatively positive track record in improving the resource efficiency of their products in the EU context is the sector of electrical and electronic equipment. EU legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment  and promoting the collection and recycling of such equipment  has been in force since February 2003 (called the waste electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, directive). The legislation provides for the creation of collection schemes where consumers return their used e-waste free of charge. The objective of these schemes is to increase the recycling and/or re-use of such products. It also requires selected hazardous materials to be substituted by safer alternatives.
Despite such rules on collection and recycling, on average, only one-third of electrical and electronic waste in the EU is recovered and appropriately treated. A part of the other two-thirds potentially still goes to landfills and to substandard treatment sites in or outside the EU. The collection target of 4 kg per person per year does not properly reflect the amount of WEEE arising in individual Member States. Illegal trade of electrical and electronic waste to non-EU countries continues to be identified at EU borders .
In December 2008, the European Commission therefore proposed to revise the directives on electrical and electronic equipment in order to tackle the fast-increasing waste stream of such products. The aim is to increase the amount of e-waste that is appropriately treated and to reduce the volume that goes to disposal. The proposals also aim to reduce the administrative burden, and ensure coherence with newer policies and legislation covering, for example, chemicals (registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemical substances) and the new legislative framework for the marketing of products in the EU.
The Commission proposes to set mandatory collection targets in each Member State of 65 per cent of the weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the two previous years. Member States with a high consumption of electrical and electronic equipment would have more ambitious collection targets under the new directive, whereas others with lower consumption levels would have targets that are appropriately adapted .
In order to achieve higher collection targets, the European Parliament stresses the importance of further increasing producer responsibility to ensure a higher level of raw materials recovery, to promote reusability as well as re- and upcyclability, and to stimulate efficient use of raw materials. Moreover, the European Parliament calls on the European Commission to develop a system of chain of custody for all raw materials, instructing producers to record the origin of raw materials through a transparent system . On 19 January 2012, the European Parliament approved legislation to strengthen the recovery of computers and other electronic and electrical waste while tightening exports of used goods to developing countries, ending months of hard-fought negotiations. The legislation obliges EU countries to collect up to 85 per cent of junked refrigerators, mobile phones, computers and other electronic products by 2019 for recycling, replacing a current system based on weight.
Nation states should elaborate their own policies to reach the stricter targets set by the EU. The Netherlands was a frontrunner in the 1990s to start a recycling system for e-waste . Policies were formulated together with the sector to set up a take-back system for electrical and electronic equipment. Because the starting point was ‘producer responsibility’, the government refrained from organizing the take-back system, but left it primarily to the sector to take the lead. Various actors had to be involved: producers, recyclers, municipalities and retailers. Among these actors, a number of intensive debates were triggered. For instance: how will the money to finance the system be generated? How much money is needed for the various activities to close the loop? How do we deal with the differences in price for recycling, knowing that later generations of e-products have begun to take ‘design for recycling’ into account? How will the responsibilities in the product chain be divided among the stakeholders involved? After years of negotiations, a take-back system was designed, which was also attuned to EU policies.
Then, the phase of implementation started. First, all actors in the product chain had to be involved in the actual execution of the take-back system: the recycling industry had to increase its capacity; the electrical and electronic industry had to increase its focus on design for recycling; and the municipalities had to set up a collection system together with retailers. The system began to function. Consumers paid an additional fee on new e-products, which created a fund to pay for the take-back system. Simultaneously, obsolete products could be discarded via the collection system.
After more than 10 years of experience, the result of all efforts was disappointing. The recycling percentages (particularly collection rates) were lower than the sector's ambition. As a result, only a part of the discarded products was recovered through the formal collection system set up by the sector. Experiences show that a large amount of e-products cannot be traced back after first use. Part of this waste stream is sold to the second-hand market, is passed on to the next users, or is land-filled and/or incinerated. However, a share of these products is also exported to other countries, particularly developing countries such as Ghana. In the latter case, it is often labelled as a second-hand product to get around illegal transport of electronic goods. Yet in fact, the products are most often directly or soon afterwards land-filled. In developing countries where strict environmental regulation on waste disposal is often lacking, the dumping of electronic goods leads to a loss of resources as well as major environmental pollution and health impacts, even affecting children. In response to these negative impacts, the Dutch government made efforts to stop illegal transport through cooperation with the receiving countries (e.g. Ghana) and to set up better local recycling facilities. Although this improved the situation, the problem cannot be solved by the Dutch government, as it requires cooperation at EU level.
What do we learn from this case? Although the take-back system aimed at closing the loop, the reality was different. The take-back system that was designed in theory, worked out differently in practice. The logistics and collection were far from optimal. This managerial problem hampered the further upgrading of the resource efficiency of e-products. The stakeholders involved in the take-back system have to rethink how to overcome the obstacles. However, it is not self-evident who can or will take the lead in improving the situation. The various actors have different stakes, and are not readily inclined to give in. Therefore, the EU stepped in and demanded higher collection and recycling rates. To implement this new regulation, the national government can be of great help. It can facilitate the process, identify the major bottlenecks and push the process into the right direction. By making explicit what hampers further collection and preventing illegal transport to developing countries, the government can help to formulate directive actions in close cooperation with EU colleagues and the actors in the product chain.
(c) Case 3: sustainable use of biomass for energy and raw material production
The expectations with regard to biomass as a source of sustainable energy and material production are high. This will be accompanied by the large-scale production of energy crops. New areas will be opened up for agriculture. Countries and producers will see opportunities for new activities. But at the same time, there is a growing concern that this must not be at the expense of other important values for nature, environment and society. Anticipating EU policies, the Dutch government already took the initiative in 2005 to cope with this dilemma. To ensure that biomass is produced and processed in a sustainable manner, it expressed the wish to incorporate sustainability criteria for biomass into the relevant policy instruments. In the short term, this concerned the obligation for biofuels for road transport. In the long term, the Dutch government aimed to promote a wider application of these sustainability criteria on the road to a bio-based economy.
The Dutch government installed the Cramer commission, named after its chairman (the author of this article). The commission consisted of representatives of industry, government and non-government organizations. After 1 year of studying and negotiating, the commission issued the report ‘Testing framework for sustainable biomass’ . The heart of the advice was formed by six criteria, related to greenhouse gas emissions, competition with food or other local applications, biodiversity, environment, prosperity and social well-being. Further analysis by the commission showed that the consequences of large-scale production are felt at two levels. At company level, only local impacts can be monitored, for instance, the emissions reduction of greenhouse gases using biomass, the conservation of soil quality and of biodiversity and the local social impacts. The first responsibility for these effects lies with local producers. At macro level, impacts occur that cannot directly be attributed to one local company, but are visible only on a national or regional scale. This holds, for instance, for the crowding out of agrarian production or indirect effects owing to changes in land use. In turn, these latter effects are primarily a responsibility of authorities. The ‘Testing framework of sustainable biomass’ makes a distinction between the micro and macro level, also in terms of responsibility (respectively, local industry and authorities).
After the adoption of the sustainability criteria by the Dutch government, the report was brought to the notice of the EU Commissioners of Environment and Energy. The report played an important role in the drafting of EU policies on sustainable use of biomass. However, some of the criteria, particularly those to be implemented at micro level, were adopted more easily than the ones that needed active participation of authorities of exporting countries outside the EU. The EU did not have a mandate to force these countries to adopt the sustainability criteria. This was considered a trade barrier. Until now, this problem has not been resolved. It requires an agreement at a bilateral or multi-national level.
What do we learn from this case? Here again, the first step was not the most difficult part: formulating the sustainability criteria for biomass. The next step, the adoption of these criteria by the Dutch government, followed by the EU, was difficult, but not problematic. The main challenge, in practice, is to certify the sustainable production of biomass. This requires the cooperation of the producing countries and the transparency of the information needed to guarantee compliance.
5. Reflection on the cases
The three cases show the complexity of the governance of transition processes.
In all cases, the first steps were relatively straightforward: structuring the problem, organizing the transition arena and drafting a transition agenda. These steps were primarily defined in terms of the roles of the different actors and the policies to be put in place. In addition, in all three cases, the transition paths were identified in terms of targets and the money involved. However, which interests, political constraints and societal barriers would be encountered was less clear in the beginning. In the course of time, a variety of problems occurred at micro, meso and/or macro level that hampered a smooth implementation of the transition paths designed at the outset.
In all three cases, the role of the government was not just top-down steering, but a continuous process of governing the development in the desired direction. If the government had not intervened in the different stages of the process, the implementation of the policies would have been hampered. As such, the actual role of the national government was a combination of top-down steering and orchestrating the process from beginning to end. In public administration literature, limited attention has been paid to such tailor-made governing processes. Instead, the theoretical debate primarily focuses on the concept of governance from the perspective of the participatory democracy, in which all stakeholders should be involved. However, what the governing role of the state actually means in practice in the various stages of the transition process is hardly reflected upon.
This also holds for the policy documents on material efficiency issued at EU and national level. All documents stress the importance of the involvement of stakeholders in the process of implementation. In this respect, they reflect the recent literature in the field of public administration, rejecting the purely hierarchical steering approach of the government. However, what this means for the governance of the implementation processes is not dealt with. This omission can be explained by the fact that such implementation processes are tailor made and can thus not be prescribed. Instead of straightforward prescriptions, it would be helpful for governments to rely upon process principles and indicators to guide the implementation process.
One may expect that the transition management literature provides more insights into the governance of transition processes. Especially in the explorative and take-off phase of a transition process, guiding principles derived from the literature have indeed proved to be helpful. Transition management literature taught us how to structure a complex, interactive design process in which all relevant stakeholders are involved. However, in the acceleration phase, other mechanisms and learning processes become essential in strengthening the transition process. Although interesting studies have been conducted, most of them are unable to cope with the multi-level, multi-actor and historical aspects involved in the acceleration stage of the transition process. Based on the experiences with transition management, lessons learned have been summarized . However, the scientific underpinning of these recommendations for intelligent change needs further research.
In conclusion, a joint strategy with all relevant stakeholders is required in order to guarantee the availability of material resources for future generations. All actors have to take responsibility and need to act. The government is a crucial actor: it has to take the lead and formulate short- and long-term targets as well as put in place policy instruments. However, the role of the government is not restricted to formulating policies and then leaving it up to other actors to implement these policies. Instead, it is a continuous interplay between the different actors during the whole implementation process.
In pursuing material efficiency, in practice, we therefore need a tailor-made governance approach instead of a top-down government approach. It is a continuous process of governing and steering the development in the desired direction and orchestrating the process from beginning to end. In order to govern with a better compass, scientifically underpinned guiding principles and indicators would be helpful. This is a challenge for both researchers in public administration and in transition management.
One contribution of 15 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Material efficiency: providing material services with less material production’.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.