Startup in Residence Northern Netherlands: two birds, one stone with Waterweg

How can you use circular materials to make cities greener and more future proof at the same time? For the Municipality of Leeuwarden, startup Waterweg is working on doing just that, with water-passing tiles made from dredge. But how are things going so far? We sat down with co-founder Wies van Lieshout to discuss their plans, the pilot and the near future.

Founders Wies van Lieshout and Eva Aarts met in 2018, during the BlueCity Circular Challenge. “And I guess you could say we’ve been inseparable ever since”, Wies says. “We were both still students at the time and assigned to the same team. I was studying Industrial Design and Eva was studying Economics and Political Science and that multidisciplinary approach has worked really well for us ever since. I’m responsible for the design and research part and Eva takes care of the business development side of things.”

Dredge and a greener city

Their water-passing tile solves two problems. Dutch summers are getting hotter and dryer. But when it does rain, it pours. Especially in urban centers, the water has nowhere to go but the sewers, which are not well equipped to handle so much water all at once. The result is flooded streets. The other problem is dredge. With so many canals and rivers, this type of waste is ever-abundant, but there aren’t a lot of practical uses for it, let alone economically viable ones. “Our tile basically kills these two birds with one stone”, Wies explains. ‘The City of Leeuwarden was looking for a way to make the city greener using circular material, so our tiles, in combination with grass in between for parking spaces, would also be a perfect fit for that.”

“By using a couple of additives, dredge can become solid enough to turn into street tiles”, Wies continues. “And by designing these tiles in such a way that water can pass alongside it, they solve the flooding problem at the same time. And by producing these tiles in large quantities, you create a circular economy where you can use a large part of a waste stream that otherwise wouldn’t be used. But this is something that needs to be set up as locally as possible and it involves a lot of different organizations, from dredging companies to municipalities to transporters and producers. It’s a very complex logistical chain.”

Startup in Residence

For Wies and Eva, this was one of the main reasons to join the Startup in Residence Program. The Northern Netherlands edition is actually the second one they participated in. “We can use all the help we can get with meeting all of the people and organizations involved”, Wies continues. “And this was a great opportunity to expand to the Northern part of the Netherlands.”

An added benefit, according to Wies, was talking to the other startups in the program. “Even though you’re all working on completely different things, there’s a lot you can learn from each other and we’ve had a lot of interesting conversations and discussions. How you communicate and negotiate with your customers, for example. It’s okay to take a tougher stance from time to time because working together is ultimately a two-way street.”

Feasibility study

For Startup in Residence Northern Netherlands, Waterweg is working together with the City of Leeuwarden. “We’re currently working on a feasibility study for them”, Wies explains. “Part of that is looking at the material quality, how well equipped the storage depot on Friesland is, but also what type of tile would work best for them. We expect to be finished somewhere in December and hopefully, that will be a great foundation to move things forward next year.”

Big puzzle

So what will the next few years look like? “The biggest challenge is solving the logistical puzzle”, Wies says. “Like I said, there are a lot of players involved and it takes time to set everything up the right way. That’s because a circular product can only work in a circular system. But to create such a system, all our chain partners need to be ready and innovate in a circular way as well. So we’re also focussing on creating this with different projects in the coming two years, in order to scale up our production. And we’re working with the cities of Delft and Rotterdam too, so there’s plenty of work ahead of us!”