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Re-inventing wastewater for rural-urban circularity

Co-creating pathways for the water, energy and food nexus in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area

Theme Urban-Rural Circularity / Call i4CS Urban-Rural Circularity March 2023

The practice of recycling urban sewage was discontinued in the 1920s due to concerns regarding hygiene and the environment. However, in recent times, circular wastewater management has experienced a resurgence to address contemporary resource crises. The reintroduction of reusing products from wastewater, specifically for Water, Energy, and Food supply (WEF), is now recognized as a vital approach towards achieving circular economies and fostering stronger connections between urban and rural areas. Example include obtaining clean water, utilizing nutrients for agriculture, and harnessing renewable energy resources for heating.

In line with this perspective, a group of researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology, Wageningen University & Research, and Utrecht University have embarked on an innovative research project. Their aim is to co-create with stakeholders actionable transformation pathways that can drive changes in narratives, social practices and governance to enable the reuse of wastewater products in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.

(Re)introducing wastewater reuse: bridging the gap

Finding practical and feasible ways to (re)introduce wastewater reuse is essential for bridging the gap between small-scale experimental studies and their large-scale implementation to support circular resource management. This gap exists not because of a lack of advanced technologies, but rather due to the complex sociotechnical changes required across water, wastewater, energy, and agri-food systems.

To implement wastewater reuse on a large scale, significant changes need to be made in the way different stakeholders, including farmers, wastewater engineers, and energy providers, carry out their work. It also means working within, and stretching the rules, ideas and actor networks that govern how we handle wastewater. These changes are closely tied to the complicated relationship between urban and rural areas, and different governing authorities, so it’s essential for everyone involved in the process to collaborate and work together.

Three perspectives on wastewater reuse

The research team combines research perspectives from environmental sociology (WUR), history of technology (TU/e) and urban and regional governance (UU), as well as cross-cutting expertise on the WEF nexus, socio-technical transitions, urban-rural circularity, and transdisciplinary research methods. Together, they focus on creating a deeper understanding about:

1) Past, present and future narratives: characterizing and contrasting narratives surrounding the reuse of wastewater products and aligning a plurality of narratives by different actors (e.g., users, farmers, engineers, policymakers)

2) User and co-provider practices: uncovering perceptions, resistance and implications for users and co-providers to change their domestic and professional practices to successfully implement wastewater reuse (e.g., farmer practices of fertilization and soil improvement, domestic energy consumption).

3) Regional governance capacities: gaining insights into how  diverse actors and institutions (are able to) coordinate wastewater reuse across policy sectors and the multiple regional and local governing bodies in  an urban-rural region.

By gaining insights into these aspects, the project aims to develop effective strategies that consider the needs and concerns of different stakeholders and promote successful adoption of wastewater reuse.

Transdisciplinary Research in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area

The research team will co-create transformation pathways together with stakeholders from the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. The area already features a strong ambition to shift towards a circular economy, which includes thinking away from the traditional approach of discarding wastewater in a linear manner. For instance, the city of Amsterdam is collaborating with utility companies to utilize the excess nutrients and water from recycled wastewater for regional farming projects. Additionally, wastewater is used to create heat and biogas as alternatives to natural gas.

During a workshop, selected stakeholders will be confronted with (contrasting) narratives of wastewater reuse, revealing for example historically normalized practices on the reuse of wastewater products in agriculture or domestic practices around food, energy and sanitation. The goal is to stimulate changing perspectives and co-develop shared imaginaries for wastewater circularity, and to explore how these imaginaries can be embedded in changing practices and governance institutions to enhance regional resource provision and urban-rural cohesion. The resulting pathways will provide action-oriented knowledge on concrete steps to address barriers and opportunities for re-inventing and embedding circular wastewater reuse

Future perspectives

By piloting the research approach in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, the researchers can fine-tune their research hypotheses and methodologies, and work towards future research proposals to explore actionable pathways to circular wastewater reuse in various global North and South contexts. This pilot study also allows to expand existing networks of stakeholders within the Netherlands, fostering collaboration and engagement with relevant parties in the region.

First project symposium (October 27, 2023): The project team came together to present and discuss the developed research directions. The students and research assistants presented their progress on analyzing historical and present narratives of wastewater reuse in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, changes of social practices in domestic solutions for wastewater reuse and integrated regional governance approaches. The goal was to explore synergies to align case studies and research strategies.

Research team

Utrecht University

  • Prof. Dr. Jochen Monstadt, Chair of Governance of Urban Transitions – Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Spatial Planning Section
  • Dr. Katharina Hölscher, Assistant Professor – Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Spatial Planning and International Development Sections
  • Ytsen Veenstra, Master student researcher and research assistant

Wageningen University

  • Dr. ir. Bas J.M. van Vliet, Associate Professor – Environmental Policy Group
  • Ilse van der Giessen, Master student researcher
  • Tuur Smeets, Master student researcher

Eindhoven University of Technology

  • Dr. Jonas van der Straeten, Assistant Professor – Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Technology, Innovation & Society
  • Puck Brouwers, Researcher
  • Kobbe Ramos Anaya, Bachelor student researcher


Dr. Katharina Hölscher

Want to know more about this project?

Contact: k.holscher@uu.nl