Three key ingredients for accelerating circular economy in cities

by Sofia Aivalioti, Johanna Reiland, Violeta Fernandez & Sebastiaan van Herk

While cities occupy less than 3% of the land, they consume over 60% of global energy and account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and global waste. Cities need a huge amount of resources to maintain their activity and continue growing and developing prosperously. Energy, water, food, materials, nutrients enter urban ecosystems and leave as emissions and waste. Take, make, use and throw away – our usual manner of consuming is no longer sustainable. How can cities turn this situation around? Embracing a  circular economy means new opportunities for employment, a cleaner environment and a sustainable future.

The challenges towards a circular transition

Embedding circular economy in cities has been gaining momentum as the optimal pathway to greater sustainability and resilience without compromising economic growth, wealth, and wellbeing. For almost a decade now, we have seen a shift in political priorities and resources towards sustainability, with the circular economy transition really emerging in the past few years 1. The European Union is actively participating in the transition with the EU’s Circular Economy Package which consists of the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy and the  Plastics Strategy that aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030.

However, such a transition entails fundamental changes in infrastructure, logistics, social behavioural patterns, business models and spatial organisation.We will have to deal with complex and slow-changing systems that require a reconceptualisation of fundamental activities in cities. This makes the transformation from a linear to a circular economy a highly challenging and time-consuming process which requires the involvement of all actors along the value and supply chain, as well as institutions/governments and the citizens.

What is required?

1) Think in material flows and value retention

In a finite-resources world, cities have to start thinking and designing circular services and systems. Those should aim to decouple economic growth from the virgin material extraction, promoting regenerative resources (i.e. biobased materials, renewable energies) and keeping materials in the loops as long as possible. Urban metabolism analysis can help explain the complexity of materials. This analysis can identify the high leverage points for circular economy and define the intervention points that require less effort and provide high outputs. Materials’ information and their geographical distribution within cities remain a black box in most places. Cities need to reevaluate existing stocks and the flow of materials. Ingenuity is required to keep these materials in the loop and maintain their high value quality. A study for the city of Melbourne shows the material stock and embodied energy across the city. This information should be used to develop optimal strategies to reuse and revalue the material.

2) Work together to closing loops

Material and value streams in cities are not only intensive and complex but also involve multiple stakeholders, such as citizens, the industry, retailers, farmers and public authorities. Closing material loops requires a multi-stakeholder close collaboration as each one requires the other in this process. For example, in order for manufacturers to create circular products of reused/recycled materials, they require either the collaboration of consumers and retailers to return the packaging or the waste agencies to provide them with recycled material. Cities can be the central point in these interchanges. Cities have the power to involve citizens in incentivised schemes such as Deposit-Refund Schemes, already implemented in many European countries and recently approved in England, promote policies for sharing and leasing instead of buying, improve sorting capacity and maximise the use of existing stocks within their geographical limits.

3) Leadership and vision

Current regulatory frameworks are designed with linear processes in mind, disabling circular economy acceleration. The European Commission has already prioritised circular economy, now it is time for cities to take the lead. Cities have to embed circularity in their policies and strategies, prioritising reducing over recycling, upcycling over downcycling and reusing over throwing away. Leadership and joint effort together with other cities and governments can help to overcome challenges and lead to the fast-paced implementation of circular economy. Circular economy can tackle many of our environmental, social and economic problems and provide the right framework for entrepreneurship and innovation. Cities can lead the way!

What we do in Bax & Company

When it comes to circular economy, BaxCo is uniquely positioned as we are working to accelerate innovation for both leading industry organisations as well as governments across Europe. Bax & Company has developed several projects with European partners including of cities, governments, associations and businesses who are leading in the field of circularity.

Circular Procurement (CircPro)

The European North Sea Region spends 14% of their GDP through public procurement (€1.9 trillion annually) which can make procurement the vehicle for a big scale transition towards a circular economy. However, the challenge is that procurement practices are linear by nature and not conducive to circular solutions. Procurement agencies are responsible for buying products but are usually not involved in how materials and resources are used or disposed of.

Therefore, the CircPro project will harmonise circular procurement in the North Sea Region with a collaborative approach between 12 partners like Rijkswaterstaat, Zero Waste Scotland and Mälmo, to connect procurers investing in similar areas, from construction to office furniture. The project enables them to scale up and increase their impact on circular economy as well as expanding the market for providers by reducing 20% raw materials, waste and CO2 emissions. The network will promote the development and adaptation of a common circular procurement framework, business models, and roadmap which will accelerate the uptake of more circular procurement of products, services and processes.

Circular innovation for regenerative cities (CIRCLED)

To overcome the transition challenges and thus accelerate circular economy in urban and peri-urban areas we need to adopt new concepts of business creation, business incubation and acceleration of circular solutions. Applied to circularity, putting the cities at the front and involving the appropriate knowledge partners in the process, a hybrid combination of these methodologies can accelerate the effective and sustained change towards urban sustainability. The behavioural change requires a much higher involvement of citizens, public authorities and industry, but also requires proof of the utility and potential of organic waste – an average of 96 million tonnes of organic waste is generated yearly in Europe– along with 143 billion euros in associated costs only for food waste – from which only 32% is recycled 2.

CIRCLED, led by a a combination of 6 municipalities and 16 industrial and academic leading players proposes to accelerate circularity through systemic change by overcoming institutional, governance, behavioural factors and fostering connectivity. CIRCLED focuses on organic waste as its main resource – the most permanent of urban resources as it will certainly always be generated. OW solutions in particular allow cities to move their organic resources from the biological side of the economy to the technical side while also reducing raw material extraction. This strategy is key for closing the loop of organic waste materials, optimising material value retention and maximising the sustainability of the new circular business model.

Each area will implement a physical circularity innovation hub and execute at least 1 pilot demonstrating advanced technical, digital and social circular innovations. These hubs host and bring together a representative sample of each urban area, connecting them with technical and knowledge experts from multiple disciplines. Their goal is to accelerate circular entrepreneurship, namely, to develop and mainstream circular solutions while learning from practice, demonstrate the circularity potential and share the acquired know-how.

Plastic Packaging Circularity (REWRAP)

Europe generates around 16 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste per year which makes up around 40% of all plastic consumption3. In 2016, only 41% of plastic packaging was recycled, creating a severe gap between the amount of plastic generated and the amount recycled.

Regions in North West Europe struggle to generate effective incentives to modify social behaviour in order to decrease generation and improve recycling of plastic packaging and other plastic consumer goods waste. Furthermore, it is a challenge to encourage circular innovation in how SMEs design, produce and treat these materials.

The REWRAP project aims to implement a consistent incentives-based system for individuals to improve their sorting quality and reduce their waste generation. It will create an acceleration methodology to promote SME innovation in each hub in cities of the NWE region.

Furthermore, it will pilot innovative incentive-based technologies targeting individuals, such as smart bins coupled with apps, in a systematic way in each location. This will enable cities to engage and incentivise individuals, measure their performance and allow the transfer of credits and rewards.

Together this will result in:

  • Reducing the volume of waste generated of PP and PCG by 20%, by increasing reuse and reducing consumption by 20%. This translates to 6.400 tonnes of plastic saved.
  • Increase the recycling rate of PP and PCG by 20% by improving the sorting quality of individuals. This translates to 5.120 tonnes of additional plastic recycled.

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