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What role can the port of Rotterdam play in the raw material transition?

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Jan Rotmans


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Different product processes, non-fossil raw materials and rare materials are crucial for a CO2-neutral, circular society. What role can the port of Rotterdam play in the raw material transition and which choices have to be made to achieve that? Those are the central questions in a recent research project, commissioned by the Port of Rotterdam Authority. 

One of the outcomes is the report ‘The raw material transition for the Port of Rotterdam’. The report advocates a radical change in the import flows and industry in the port. The raw material transition is a precondition for the success of the energy transition worldwide and for the future of the port of Rotterdam. At the same time, it forms the precursor to a circular economy that is now very much in development, but which is essential if the earth’s resources are not to be further exhausted. Not only that, but making and recycling products contributes in this context to Europe’s strategic autonomy. One conclusion of the research is that the circular economy needs more physical space for the collection and separation of all residual and waste flows for processing into new products. According to the research, this means that it is necessary to look beyond the current port area.

“The raw material transition is crucial to the energy transition, for the world, for Europe, for the Netherlands and for the port of Rotterdam. As yet, the circular economy forms only 7% of the real economy worldwide. If the port of Rotterdam wants to become circular, more space is needed for the processing of all the residual and waste flows. That will mean judicious decision-making for the future."

Jan Rotmans

Import of raw materials

The research focuses on three major product chains: critical raw materials, chemicals and building materials. Critical raw materials are those currently often imported and used in small quantities in Europe but that are essential for all sorts of technologies. Multiple quantities are needed for the energy transition. The European Critical Raw Materials Act sets goals for 2030 for the percentage of raw materials that must come from Europe itself (10%), the processing capacity (40%) and recycling (15%). Many materials must be imported from other parts of the world which now mainly supply to other countries, in particular China. The report recommends that Rotterdam take a leading role in raw material diplomacy, aimed at bilateral collaboration. And it is important that more businesses which recycle and process those critical raw materials are established in or around the port.

New value chains

Scaling up industry which processes that waste (also plastic) into new products is essential. The raw materials in the chemicals industry are now often based on crude oil and other fossil sources. That has to change. It requires a fundamental change to the system and new value chains of other raw materials. Other advice in the report is to build a network and infrastructure in the current “hinterland” of North West Europe, to recover materials. That will mean new input, such as pyrolysis oil from used plastic.

From fossils to bio-based

Constructing with concrete and steel requires a lot of energy and leads to high emissions of CO2. Constructing with bio-based materials such as wood is a good alternative. Fundamental changes in the raw materials chain are needed, from countries of production to the processing industry. Rotterdam can play a role in the import of wood as a building material.


Setting up new value chains of raw and other materials requires making choices; which activities should scale up, which will disappear and what does all that mean for the existing value chains? How should the scarce space be distributed?

This research gives guidelines for the raw materials strategy that the Port of Rotterdam Authority is in the process of developing. The strategy is scheduled to be completed this year.

2022 – 2024

Funded by
Port of Rotterdam Authority

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“The energy transition is beginning to take shape and the next step is to consolidate the raw material transition. For that reason, we are developing a raw material strategy this year, for which this research offers valuable guidelines.”

Boudewijn Siemons, CEO Port of Rotterdam