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Dunkirk, an example of a successful ecological transition thanks to the local economy?

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The city of Dunkirk is quite well known for its environmental policy, especially its public transport policy. It also owes this reputation to its pioneering work on the circular economy applied to industry.

The circular economy applied to industry is also known as industrial ecology It is based on optimised management of stocks and flows of materials, energy and services, by creating synergies between different industries. The waste of some becomes the resources of the others and this contributes to creating a virtuous circle.

Firstly, in economic terms, since this method greatly favours the local economy. Secondly, in environmental terms. It is also a source of collective learning, innovation and diversification of the economic activities of a territory. In short, there are many positive externalities in exploring this method.

In Dunkirk, the first stones of this local and circular vision of industry were laid in the 1960s, via a merger between EDF and the steel manufacturer Usino (now ArcelorMittal). EDF set up a thermal power plant there that operates on the recovery of the steelmaker’s gases. Still in operation today, it recovers 5 billion m3 of steelmaking gases from ArcelorMittal each year.

But the recovery of the gas produced by the local steelworks is only part of the circular potential possible via this plant. In 1986, another aspect of this circular logic was explored: the city decided to create a heating network – one of the largest in France – based on the recovery of heat emitted by the blast furnaces. Today, this network heats 16,000 collective housing units and offices, thus avoiding the emission of 30,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Other similar examples followed in the Dunkirk area: in the 1990s, for example, EDF decided to use the heated water from the secondary circuit of the Gravelines nuclear power plant for an aquaculture farm – Aquanord – which produces 1,500 tonnes of fishes each year. More recently, in 2007, the Dunkirk Urban Community opened the CVE (Centre de Valorisation Énergétique in French or CEV for Centre for Energy Valorisation in English) and the CVO (Centre de Valorisation Organique in French or ORC for Organic Recovery Centre in English), which recover and recycle waste from the region. For example, the CVO transforms 22,000 tons of organic waste into 6,700 tons of compost used to fertilise agricultural land.

A factor of resilience and attractiveness

This interconnection between local actors also has other advantages, in particular that of having made the territory more resilient in the face of the volatile economic contexts of recent years. In particular during the 2008 subprime crisis, which disrupted the global economy and industry. However, thanks to this “industrial web” created in the North, companies and local politicians have managed to identify levers to protect themselves from factory closures.

For some years now, this circular logic has even become a factor of attractiveness for the territory and makes it easier for newcomers to set up there. This is the case, for example, of the Irish company Ecocem, which recovers co-products from the ArcelorMittal steel industry to manufacture an ecological cement.

Recently, the health crisis has highlighted the limits of a globalised world where the production of our needs is located abroad, and the relocation of our industry on the territory is now a priority supported by the State. A priority that echoes the trend towards the local economy, which, from food to fashion to construction, is becoming the norm again. In this respect, the example of this successful industrial ecology in Dunkirk could inspire more than one territory in France.

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