New VUB chair researches circular economy in Flemish seaports 

In partnership with Vlaanderen Circulair and the Flemish seaports Port of Antwerp-Bruges, North Sea Port and Port Oostende, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has launched the Circular Port Monitoring in Flanders research chair. Led by professor of sustainable strategy Elvira Haezendonck, the chair will coordinate research into the circular economy in Flemish seaports for two years. It will also focus on developing a monitoring system to measure and improve efforts relating to the circular economy. The intention is to make the ports both ambitious and future-proof.

The circular economy - an economic system in which products, materials and resources are valorised for as long as possible, and in which waste and emissions are minimalised - is receiving increasing global attention. Flemish seaports will benefit from facilitating this sustainable shift among port businesses, enabling them to become and remain future-proof.

"Rather than the traditional, linear approach of production, consumption and then disposal, a circular economy strives to close the circle, enabling products and materials to be reused, repaired, recycled and upgraded," says academic coordinator Lynn Faut, affiliated with the VUB. "It’s important for Flanders’ seaport industry to take the lead on this for a number of reasons. It reduces impact on the environment, and creates economic opportunities because materials and resources are used more efficiently and new material streams are facilitated. It enhances the industry’s international position and inspires policymakers and sectors. Additionally, port businesses face growing obligations relating to sustainability reporting. Based on our research, they can gather knowledge on the circular economy, which allows them to make the right strategic and sustainable choices."

As well as providing cutting-edge research, the chair will work on the development of a monitoring system to enable Flemish seaports to measure their efforts in the transition to a circular economy.

"The aim of measuring circularity is nothing new," says chair holder Elvira Haezendonck, professor of sustainable strategy affiliated with the Solvay Business School of the VUB. "A broader circular economy monitor was previously developed in Flanders by the CE Center, but it didn’t help the seaports move forward as leaders. On behalf of Vlaanderen Circulair, in 2022 I carried out a first exploratory study on monitoring circularity in ports. A science-based monitoring system will allow ports to communicate the fulfilment of their circular ambitions and measure socio-economic outcomes for relevant indicators. That’s useful not only for the partners of the research chair but also for other ports around the world. The Permanent International Commission for Navigation Congresses and International Association of Ports and Harbors have already shown an interest in sharing the results internationally for ports and port developers around the world."
"This cooperation with a unique group of partners ensures important cross-fertilisation between practice, policy, scientific insight and research. In Flanders, we can - and we want to - remain a step ahead," says Brigitte Mouligneau of Vlaanderen Circulair.

The three ports’ position as European frontrunners in circularity is shown not only by their ambitions and inspiring use cases, but also by their commitment to the research chair.

"Contributing to a more circular port economy has long been a spearhead for the Port of Antwerp-Bruges’ policy. Take the successful development of the Next Gen District on the Antwerp port platform. Support for this chair is aligned with that ambition. Furthermore, this partnership aligns with the cooperation model we advocate to meet the challenges of the future," says Guy Janssens, vice-president Corporate Affairs at Port of Antwerp-Bruges.
"The complete circular cluster, which has since taken shape, contributes to addressing climate issues and aligns with Port Oostende’s sustainability and corporate responsibility focus. This collaboration is essential for the future; companies, governments and knowledge and educational institutions achieve more together than they would with separate approaches," says Dirk Declerck, CEO Port Oostende.
"At North Sea Port, we already have the raw materials of tomorrow, so we are already leading the circular revolution. In the port area, we stimulate the development of circular chains, in which materials and products are continually reused. We also connect all the actors involved and support them with our knowledge and experience. Cooperation in the framework of this chair is therefore hugely enriching and inspiring. It allows us to support companies in and around our port area to meet their ambitious climate targets and make the port climate neutral by 2050," says Daan Schalck, CEO North Sea Port
"As an urban engaged university, we are committed to helping seek solutions for the many sustainability challenges that our planet is facing, such as climate change, water shortages and air pollution. With the Circular Port Monitoring in Flanders research chair, we’re demonstrating with our partners our efforts to stimulate innovation and promote the transition to a circular economy in Flanders’ seaports. Close cooperation with industry and businesses is hugely valuable, because it enables the rapid spread of knowledge to the work floor and leads to concrete, practical applications with a real impact on society and the environment," says Pieter Ballon, vice-rector Research at VUB.

The results of the chair’s research will be shared via scientific publications and on the Circular Port Monitor website.

About the researchers

Elvira Haezendonck is a full professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Solvay Business School of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and guest professor at Antwerp University. Over 25 years, she has accumulated significant experience in the strategic and policy aspects of competition and clusters, as well as the evaluation of port projects and strategies, particularly in infrastructure and sustainability. Her applied research, including more than 100 projects and numerous publications, is both practical and policy-relevant. In 2022, she became the first female chair of IAME, the international association of maritime economic academics, and chair of Green Energy Park, the home of the VUB innovation campus in Zellik.

Dr Lynn Faut carried out her PhD research on the circular economy in ports as part of Prof Haezendonck’s team. She was also involved in the exploratory research on relevant indicators.

About Vlaanderen Circulair

Vlaanderen Circulair is Flanders’ partnership for the circular economy, in which governments, businesses, civil society, financiers and the knowledge community act together to create sustainable cycles.

About the Flemish seaports

The merged Port of Antwerp-Bruges has managed the two platforms of Antwerp and Zeebrugge since 2022. It is home to 1,400 companies and houses the largest integrated chemical cluster in Europe. Its mission is to be a lever for a sustainable future.

Port Oostende is committed to continuity, growth and employment within five pillars: Blue Economy, Lift-on lift-off, Bulk & Project Cargo, Cruises & Roll-on roll-off, Circular Industry and the Fisheries Sector. These sectors are built on two fundamentals: prioritising safety, health and the environment and supporting innovation and development

North Sea Port is the 60km cross-border port area that stretches from Vlissingen on the Dutch North Sea via Terneuzen to Ghent in Belgium, 32km inland. As a central hub for Western Europe, the port represents multimodal transport - maritime, inland waterway, rail, road and pipeline - and a wide range of cargo types. Its ¤12.7 billion of added value make it the third largest European port. In terms of cargo handling, it ranks ninth in Europe with 65.9 million tonnes. The port area has 550 companies and creates direct and indirect employment for 106,000 people.