Circular entrepreneurship at NS: play table tennis on old train floors

Speakers, planters, glass walls, kitchens and even table tennis tables. It’s hard to imagine, but all these products are made from old trains. This won NS a sustainability award, but it does not stop there: Ilse de Vos-van Eekeren, head of circular business at NS, wants to change the world with circular entrepreneurship: “As NS, we can strive for a circular train, but it is there, the world also does not help much. You want circular trains all over the world. “

You can not miss the recycled train products at the headquarters of the Dutch railways, right next to Utrecht Central Station. Everywhere you look today, the tide of protectionist sentiment is flowing. Old pull-out bins that have been turned into plant boxes hang on the wall. The seating areas look like new chairs, but they have been thundering across the Dutch runway for 46 years.

You can not imagine what is made of train parts. Ilse de Vos-van Eekeren is therefore very proud: “I have really sent an SMS to all my friends a picture of the table tennis table made of old train floors. That’s good, isn’t it? “

Old train floors converted into table tennis tables. Photo NS

Train modernization is timeless

“Train modernization is not new”, De Vos-van Eekeren enthusiastically begins to explain. “Train modernization is in our genes at NS. We have a beautiful train modernization workshop in Haarlem, which is also our oldest workshop. It is new that we have made circularity measurable since 2017, and that we aim to increase circularity. It really is from the last few years. ”

This circular entrepreneurship has proven to be extremely successful. The beginning was difficult as many companies did not know what to do with old used, worn and dirty train parts. When a first company dared to do so, things started to get going and we are now modernizing 99 percent circular NS trains. And we (re) use the knowledge gained in the design and procurement of the new trains to steer towards 100 percent circular trains. Not only in the Netherlands, but we are scaling this up worldwide. With this progress, NS has won a sustainability award from UIC, and NS wants to be an example of circular entrepreneurship for the rest of the world.

De Vos-van Eekeren explains how circular entrepreneurship started: “I have been involved in train modernization since around 2016. At that time, the first VIRM trains were nearing the end of their lives. That’s after eighteen years. At that point, we set about investigating whether we could extend the life of the trains. We could and would. We looked at and mapped each part with engineers: How much does it weigh? What is it made of? Can it get back on the train after an overhaul or an upgrade? ”

“We try to reuse as many parts as possible in the renewed train. That’s because it’s the most sustainable. We came to the conclusion that 86 percent of the parts just come back in the new train. The train doors are removed, polished and given a new layer of foil. The door windows are plastered again and the rubbers can be replaced, but that door just comes back like brand new. ”

Thermohard composite material

“The other fourteen percent do not come back because the legislation changes, for example. For example, new fire requirements must be met. The old side walls do not comply with this after being repainted and therefore do not go back in the train. These are made of thermosetting composites. These composites used to be thrown in a container and they were all dumped. If you try to burn it in an oven, a giant chewing gum ball will form and the oven will break. ”

“The landfill is really the worst thing one can do. I do not know if you know the pictures of wind turbine blades that are buried en masse in the deserts. These are really shocking pictures. The first thing we said is that if NS does not think it is okay to deposit, then we do not think so. But how do you solve it? ” De Vos-van Eekeren wonders aloud.

“We started looking at knowledge institutes and companies that know something about this, and ended up at Windesheim’s research group for plastic technology in Zwolle. They have a whole research team there about composites and they just wanted to start a project to see how they could make them recyclable. They have developed a technique that turns it into flakes that still retain the strong properties of the material. You can reuse it indefinitely. “

The world is not yet fully equipped for the amount of composites used in products. Supply due to this recycling method is now much higher than demand. “We are trying to close that cycle. For example, we are now also making sleepers for the track of these composite flakes,” says De Vos-van Eekeren.

Bluetooth speaker from train floors and an old speaker system.  Photo: NS
Bluetooth speaker from train floors and an old speaker system. Photo: NS

Train floors, bluetooth boxes and kitchens

The side walls of the old VIRM were not the only challenge. One would say that no one is waiting for dirty train floors that 44 million feet have walked on. “We have really tried everything with these floors,” says De Vos-van Eekeren enthusiastically. “We put bowls of water to see if the glued linoleum would get rid of. We did all kinds of experiments, but it was inseparable. Because we could not get the glued linoleum off the wood, it would normally go directly into the incinerator.”

“It’s just many floors: 665 double-decker trains. It’s very train floor. We divided it into manageable blocks and visited two hundred companies to ask if they could do something about the material. The inevitable answer was no. There is a hole in every meter of the floor where the train seats were attached, and the train floor is of course quite dirty. ”

“At one point we found a company that dared to use these old train floors. They were enthusiastic and turned it into a table tennis table, and then a whole new world opened up. You are first told two hundred times that it is not possible, that it is worthless, and that it is a waste. If it suddenly succeeds, then all eyes suddenly open. Now the train floors are used to make stools, desks and kitchens. You can’t really think about it that crazy. ”

Ilse de Vos van Eekeren with the International Sustainability Award.  Photo NS
Ilse de Vos-van Eekeren with the International Sustainability Award. Photo NS

To change the world

Partly because of these projects, NS has won a UIC sustainability award. NS is a frontrunner and driver in the field of circularity in Europe and the world.

“You want circular trains worldwide, and a train builder, as realistic as you have to be, will not only design and build a completely different train to NS. If you want to realize change and make an impact, you need to take a bigger approach. We have therefore now started a European Eurospec working group with, among others, Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, SBB, OBB, Rail Delivery Group and Porterbrook to upscale circular specifications for the purchase of new trains in Europe. We have now prepared common specifications with definitions, measurement methods, requirements for circular design and material use as well as material passes. In it, we keep track of all specifications of the material and how we can reuse the material in the future. ”

The golden tip from De Vos-van Eekeren is to start small with a good dose of perseverance. “The first step is: Do it. Book small successes and expand from there. When the very first table tennis table was successful, I was so happy, and that example is also inspiring. Go and do it!”

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