Sustainability assessment and policy research

General theme: The Research Line investigates the environmental impacts, economic feasibility and Social License to Operate of new flow sheets for the extraction, recovery and/or recycling of metals and/or minerals from low-grade ores, industrial process residues, and End-of-Life consumer goods. Particular attention goes out to the legal, social and economic bottlenecks, while also assessing the opportunities and possible incentives for sustainable (inorganic) materials management. Concurrently, SIM² KU Leuven uses a multi-actor, collaborative approach to obtain and maintain the Social License to Operate for mining and recycling projects. This Research Line is fully synchonised with the clean energy and smart moblity targets set forth in the European Green Deal (EC,COM(2019)640), A new Circular Economy Action Plan (EC,COM(2020)98) and A New Industrial Strategy for Europe (EC,COM(2020)102).

Flagship topics:

Prospective sustainability assessments

Methodologies such as LCA, LCC, CBA, exergy, dynamic MFA are further developed and applied on sustainable inorganic materials management developments, from laboratory to industrial and value chain scale. The assessments evaluate the economic, ecological and social opportunities within new material recycling and recovery flow sheets developed by the other RLs of SIM² or external (industrial and academic) partners.

Risk assessment of metals and metalloids in the environment

The environmental risk of metals and metalloids is controlled by the speciation of these compounds. This means that total concentrations are only poor indicators of risk. SIM² KU Leuven performs the risk assessment of metals and metalloids in the environment and in the food chain. The assessments can be desk-top based or use environmental monitoring and testing of speciation and toxicity. The risk assessments can be generic, e.g. for REACH or CLP, can be regional based, i.e. defining clean-up limits and can be site specific, i.e. at mine sites, landfills, waste treatment or in workplaces.

Policy research and Impact assessment studies

The broader economic, legal, and environmental context (with focus on criticality of resources and impact on climate change) is taken into account in consequential sustainability studies, multi-criteria analyses of complex problems, partial and general equilibrium economic models, etc. The impact of national and European legislation on SIM² related technologies will also be covered. The aim is to come to relevant indicators for sustainable materials management, guiding policy makers in governmental agencies and companies. The policy research centre CE is the driver for this subtopic.

Social License to Operate for primary, urban and landfill mining projects

Action research and bidirectional interaction with external stakeholders, including civil society groups and local communities, are set up to ensure projects that take the local context into account. This includes stakeholder analyses on local and regional levels, local dialogue, participatory monitoring and evaluation, and multi-stakeholder governance.

The Team:

Prof. Karel Van Acker

Sustainability assessments of materials and circular economy (SAM)

Prof. Marc Craps

Research Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability (CEDON)

Prof. Luc Alaerts

Sustainability assessments of materials and circular economy

Prof. Simon De Jaeger

Research Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability (CEDON)

Prof. Karen Allacker

Architectural Engineering (Department of Architecture)

Prof. Erik Smolders

Division Soil and Water Management - Dep' Earth & Environmental Sciences

Prof. Valerie Cappuyns

Environmental Science and Technology (CEDON)

Prof. Jo Van Caneghem

Chemistry for Energy & Materials Recovery in Thermal Systems

Prof. Geert Van Calster

Research Unit International & European Law - Institute for European Law

Dr. Marion Bechtold

Materials Research Centre (MRC) - Industrial Research Fund (IOF)

Prof. Johan Eyckmans

Research Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability (CEDON)

Prof. Joost Duflou

Research Group Life Cycle Engineering - Manufacturing Processes and Systems

Piet Wostyn

Laboratory of Metallurgical Chemistry (SOLVOMET)

Prof. Wim Dewulf

Manufacturing Processes & Systems

Dr. Andrea Di Maria

Sustainability assessments of materials and circular economy


Sustainability Assessment and Policy Research

The Research Line investigates the economic and environmental feasibility of new flow sheets for the recovery of metals and/or minerals from end-of-life consumer goods, industrial process residues and low-grade ores. Particular attention goes out to the legal, social and economic bottlenecks, while assessing also the opportunities and possible incentives for sustainable (inorganic) materials management.

Flagship topics:

  • Life cycle assessments of material recycling and recovery flow sheets (LCA)
  • Materials flows and sustainability assessment of material life cycles (MFA)
  • Economic impact assessment studies for sustainable materials management (EIA)
  • Policy context and legal aspects of sustainable materials management

The Team:

Prof. Karel Van Acker (RL Leader) is senior lecturer in sustainable materials and processes, coordinator of the Leuven Materials Research Centre at KU Leuven and Promotor-Coordinator of the policy research centre Sustainable Materials Management. He chairs the Flemish Transition Network on Sustainable Materials Management and is involved in numerous projects on sustainability assessments of material life cycles, ranging from CFRP to biobased plastics, and on urban mining and the valorisation of residues.

Contact Prof. Van Acker

Prof. Geert Van Calster is professor at the University of Leuven and Head of Leuven Law’s department of European and international law. He is also senior fellow at Leuven’s Centre for Global Governance Studies. His work focuses on conflict of laws (private international law), EU and international regulatory law (especially environment), and international and EU economic law.

Prof. Marc Craps is senior lecturer – researcher at the Center for Economics and Corporate Sustainability (CEDON) of KU Leuven at Campus Brussels. He’s an organisational psychologist and cultural anthropologist with a special interest in action research for multi-actor collaboration and sustainable resources management.

Prof. Johan Eyckmans is professor in environmental economics at KU Leuven Faculty of Economics and Business, campus Brussels. His research interests include the economics of climate change (game theory and formation of international environmental agreements, integrated assessment modeling), economics of waste and materials, cost benefit analysis (valuation of environmental goods and services) and evaluation of environmental policies.

Prof. Valerie Cappuyns is senior lecturer in environmental science and technology. Her research interests include environmental geochemistry (solid-phase characterisation and leaching of heavy metals from soils, sediments and waste materials), sustainable management of contaminated sites, life cycle analysis, and  eco-efficiency.

Embedded in the SuMMa Policy Research Centre:

The Policy Research Centre – Sustainable Materials Management proves that the Science, Engineering and Technology Group can play an important role on the societal level. The Flemish government recently recognized a number of new Policy Research Centres. For the theme “Sustainable Materials Management” the candidacy of professor Karel Van Acker was selected. This recognition comes with a long-term structural funding for his research on the efficient use of raw materials, but also with an opportunity to contribute to the Flemish policy. The Policy Research Centre Programme was established by the Flemish government to provide a scientific basis for policy and enable a quick and proactive response to social developments and challenges. At the end of 2011 the government selected new research themes on the basis of its policy priorities. For each theme one candidacy was accepted to become a Policy Research Centre. These centres get structural research funding for a period of four years.

Professor Van Acker: “Sustainable Materials Management is a completely new theme. We will examine how we can be less dependent for our materials supply in Flanders and what is needed to get there. How can we build a more circular economy? How can we better close certain material loops? How can we ensure that we need less raw materials, become less dependent on supply from foreign countries and have less impact on the environment? We will study the current policy and its impact. We will translate the knowledge, gathered through our research, into specific recommendations for future policy of the Flemish government.

  • Interdisciplinary Research: “Our research for the Policy Research Centre is highly interdisciplinary. We do not only examine technological innovation, but we also study the economic instruments that the government can use to promote sustainable materials management, such as taxes, subsidies and standards. The legal framework is also part of our research. For instance, which laws make certain recycling opportunities impossible at this moment?  There are also people from organisation psychology involved, who will shed light on how the various actors can work together in a way that brings benefit to everyone.  We are used to primarily focus on the industrial valorisation of our research, but the Policy Research Centre really looks at the social valorisation.
  • Composition of the Policy Research Centre: “We have set up the Policy Research Centre as a matrix organisation which allows us to work closely together on specific cases throughout the various disciplines. In total, nine people are working in the centre. At the KU Leuven we have a postdoctoral researcher Materials Science who deals with life cycle costing and analysis, a doctoral student from the Faculty of Law who specializes in environmental law and a doctoral student from the Faculty of Business and Economics who looks into economic incentives. Furthermore there are people involved from VITO, UGent, UHasselt, UA and HUB. We mainly work on long-term fundamental research to provide a solid scientific base for the policy, but occasionally there are problem-driven short-term assignments, e.g. around topics from parliamentary questions.
  • Policy-relevant and independent: Can research that needs to be relevant to policy still be independent? “I’m not really worried about that”, says professor Van Acker, “The policy feels a serious shortage of scientific support. Many aspects of research in sustainable materials management are very new. We can really make a significant contribution in a very objective manner. The government expects focused policy advice for the long term, and therefore there is no value if we play up to them.” “Our work is followed by a large and diverse steering group committee, that will help to pursue objectivity. We, ourselves, have also proposed to establish an International Advisory Board that will monitor the scientific quality of the research. In addition, we will regularly organize sounding boards to get the industry and NGOs involved. We must ensure that all the different actors are drawn in and that we identify their needs. Managing this interdisciplinarity is our biggest challenge.”
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