Circular economy approaches seek to reduce overall material use, eliminate waste, and regenerate the environment. As many climate impacts are attached to how we extract and process materials—more than half of all global emissions—a local circular economy in Amsterdam would benefit the environment and people. Amsterdam aims to reduce its use of new, non-renewable raw materials by 50% and emissions output by 55% by 2030. By 2050, it aims to be fully circular.

“At this point, we don’t need another report. We need action. AMS Institute research goes beyond theorizing and ‘what-if scenarios’: we mobilize scientists to address current problems and solve them together on the ground. We build coalitions around circular pilots, learn how to work together, and scale up the solutions with our partners. Ultimately, we show how things could be done differently in the City, whether in road construction, new builds or managing data centers”

Joppe van Driel

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions

The four circular approaches that the City could adopt are:

  1. Extend product life of solar panels: Using solar panels for their entire 25 year lifespan,
  2. Reduce excess material and energy use in data centers: Using data centers more efficiently and reducing the number of servers needed for digitalization,
  3. Use circular materials in roads: Paving roads with circular asphalt and concrete and,
  4. Use biobased materials in buildings: Constructing new builds with timber and biobased insulation.

By implementing four circular economy approaches city-wide, Amsterdam could achieve carbon emission reductions equivalent to the combined energy consumption of 28,000 to 35,000 homes being completely zero-emission: no reliance on the grid or gas, with all energy needs entirely sourced from renewable energy. Importantly, these circular solutions are ready to implement: they do not require new technologies to enter the market, new or lots of expertise, and no laws or regulations stand in the way.

The carbon savings reported are not only hypothetical. The circular approaches are already happening in the City—now they need to be scaled. The method of AMS Institute and its partners is to use Amsterdam as a 'Living Lab'. Pilots are conducted in public space, in close collaboration with the City, partner universities such as TU Delft, Wageningen University and Research, and MIT, as well as businesses and local stakeholders. In calculating this overall figure of emissions reduction, we have combined the potential savings from different projects and pilots that are active or have been conducted in the city with a range of partners.

Installers at work installing 800 second-hand panels on the Marineterrein (Source: Zuiderlicht)

  1. Extending the amount of time solar panels are used would save 8,000 to 17,000 tonnes of carbon a year

In Amsterdam, installed solar panels surpassed 710,000 in 2023 and are expected to grow to 3.25 million by 2040. Many reasons underpin this growth in solar panel use: they're getting cheaper, investment costs are low, and newer models come with performance improvements. However, this will likely lead to huge numbers of solar panels being thrown away. These panels now end up in low-value e-waste streams, with their most valuable materials used as filler materials in concrete or asphalt. Our research estimates that solar panel owners are financially inclined to replace them after 12 years on average, with a substantial amount of panels only being used for 5 to 6 years before entering the e-waste pile. This is a huge waste, given their predicted 25-year lifespan.

Researchers from AMS Institute, TU Delft, and Leiden University (lead author Sietse de Vilder) investigated how many tonnes of carbon emissions Amsterdam could save if solar panels were used for their entire lifespan (25 years) rather than being replaced by better-performing solar panels after only 5 to 12 years. Exploring various scenarios, they found that the carbon emissions savings would be between 125,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents to 272,000 tonnes from 2024 to 2040. Expressed in a yearly average, it's equivalent to the emissions stemming from the energy consumption of about 2,400 to 5,200 households. In other words, it would be comparable to permanently turning off the gas in the Haarlemmerbuurt.

Moreover, if still functional discarded solar panels are reinstalled at locations with a limited use period, such as roofs with planned roof maintenance, they could contribute to substantial emission savings while also contributing to the acceleration of our energy transition. The research shows that using 12-year-old panels instead of new panels in 2026 on a 100m2 rooftop with a remaining use period of eight years can save between 5140 and 9740 kg of CO2 equivalents. The impact of reuse will continue to increase as our electricity mix becomes more sustainable.

“It is crazy that we are throwing away well-functioning solar panels like they’re some disposable product. While the fast deployment of solar panels is crucial for our energy transition, we should not underestimate the overall environmental impact of their energy-intensive production. We should avoid early replacement, as it undermines the paramount motivation behind the energy transition, and promote the direct reuse of solar panels”

Sietse de Vilder

Project Manager and Living Lab Coordinator

  1. Reduction of IT servers used could cut 27,000 41,000 tonnes of carbon a year 

While our data' lives in the cloud', our digital lives are a physical issue in the City. The mass digitalization of everyday life requires vast computation and storage in servers packed with critical raw materials. Data centers are wildly energy-, water- and resource-intensive, and AI's current and future projections will worsen this situation. Globally, the ICT sector already accounts for more carbon emissions than the global aviation sector. As three-quarters of all the Netherlands' multi-tenant data centers are in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (AMA), changes to server management in the City will have wide-reaching results.

Research from the Circularity in Urban Regions portfolio at AMS Institute, in collaboration with other partners such as TU Delft, indicates that the digital life of the City could also be sustained with 25% fewer servers without impact on performance (based on analysis of a ‘typical’ Amsterdam server park with 150 servers). So what if the AMA reduced its installed server capacity, combined with circular procurement strategy for server replacement, in similar fashion?

Market research shows that currently 8.5% of companies in the B2B IT sector are already implementing circular procurement criteria. If we can scale these results to this group of frontrunners in the datacenter industry, we could be able to achieve 27,000 to 41,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents reduction a year, or as much emissions as caused by the energy consumption of  8,200 to 12,000 Dutch households a year.

“We think of digitization as something taking place in a purely virtual world. Yet all these datacenters surrounding Amsterdam remind us just how physical IT really is. These concrete blocks containing nothing but racks filled with high-tech hardware, wrestling shoulder to shoulder with residential buildings, taking up space and increasing our carbon footprint,”

Joppe van Driel

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions

  1. Paving roads using circular methods and biobased materials could save 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of carbon a year

The construction and maintenance of roads accounts for two-thirds of all emissions in the infrastructure sector and over 1.5% of total annual emissions in the Netherlands. Circular paving offers a practical and affordable solution to reduce this footprint quickly. Research and pilots within the Circularity in Urban Regions portfolio, in partnership with TU Delft and lead author Felix Fröhling, have found that if a circular paving approach (using circular materials and ensuring the maximum reuse of assets) was applied to all road maintenance from 2025 to 2030, carbon emissions from roadworks at the city level could halved: comparable to removing one to two city neighborhoods the size of the Vondelpark area from natural gas in one go.

Circular material use includes cement-less concrete (Geopolymer) or low-temperature asphalt (LEAB), and it would be vital for materials to be reused highly: at a rate of 50% for asphalt, 70% for concrete elements, and 85% for bricks. The vast majority of emissions in roadworks, 85 to 90%, comes from producing the materials themselves. Progress can be made immediately because sustainable alternatives are now available for all paving materials, and the high levels of reuse are technically already achievable in significant maintenance, redevelopment, and replacement projects.

4. Using biobased load bearing structures and insulation in 7,500 new built homes would save around  50,000 tonnes of carbon a year

The Dutch construction industry faces a huge double challenge. There is a shortage of 331,000 homes, 4.2% of the housing stock and Amsterdam wants to build up to 7,500 homes per year. However, the construction sector is responsible for 40% of global CO2 emissions, so we need to drastically reduce its emissions to meet the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

Biobased materials such as timber, straw and biocomposites are uniquely placed in this challenge. The production of these materials avoids a lot of the carbon emissions related to conventional building materials such as concrete and steel. They also store carbon for as long as they are in use in a building. The AMA has set itself the ambition to realize 20% of all new built residential units in biobased materials by 2025 in its Green Deal Timber Construction. AMS Institute acts as knowledge and network partner within this Green Deal, and is involved in several other timber building related projects to drive innovation and research – and ultimately increased adoption – on this important topic.

AMS Institute, in collaboration with TU Delft researchers, has quantified the carbon impacts of biobased construction materials, such as mass timber for load bearing structures and straw for insulation layers: insulating 7,500 homes per year with straw instead of extruded polystyrene (XPS) could save up to 900.000 kg CO2 equivalents annually. Building 7,500 homes with timber could save up to 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions yearly, and proper cascading and long lifespan of the components and buildings could further increase this impact (from 50% to 80% reduction and a carbon sink of 71,600 CO2 equivalents respectively).

“Properly analyzing the climate impact of biobased materials is necessary to select the right product solutions. Alongside this, we work on developing living labs in the region to bring research into practice, as well as educate future talent on bio-based construction techniques”

Joke Dufourmont

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions