Circular Economy at a City Level

Imagine a city that promotes the transition from a linear to a circular economy in an integrated and inclusive way by collaborating with municipalities, utility companies, citizens, businesses, and the research community to develop and test business models that decouple resource use from economic growth. A city that maintains the value and utility of products, resources, and materials for as long as possible in order to close the loop and minimise new resource use and waste generation. A city that through public procurement and investment budgets drives demand for circular products and services. And by doing all of this, improves human wellbeing, reduces emissions and pollution, protects our environment and enhances biodiversity, while leaving no one behind —in line with the bigger goals and strategies we want to achieve: the EU Green Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Such a circular city looks beyond returning to business-as-usual in the post-Pandemic times, and instead seeks to find different, more sustainable and resilient strategies for its future.

Circular Economy: What Are the Stakes?

Natural systems are circular par excellence from which we can draw inspiration. The ‘take-make-dispose’ principle is the conventional way through which humans have been producing and consuming – but our planet has been pushed to the limits and it is high time for a fundamental change of course. A circular approach to both production and consumption is no longer a topic of discussion; it is rather the imperative of our era. At an EU level, the Circular Economy Action Plan, as part of the EU Green Deal, lays the ground for designing sustainability into products and services. Cities and regions, as major stakeholders in fields such as construction, mobility, food, waste management, products and services, and more, have a vital role to play in the transition to circular economy. For a comprehensive take on the multi-faceted role of cities in circular economy – watch our webinar Circular Economy on a City Level and check out our Circular Economy Guidebook for Cities. 

Cities: Why Are they Key?

Home to over 55 % of the world’s entire population, cities are responsible for 70 % of all greenhouse gas emissions*,  75 % of all consumption of natural resources, and 50 % of the global waste. On the other side, cities are epicentres of innovation and facilitators in socio-economic transformations. At the CSCP, we see cities and regions with a two-fold role: as suppliers and consumers of (circular) goods and services, but also as enablers. In the latter case, they provide instruments and infrastructure for local communities and the economy to transition to circularity. They could be change agents for sustainability if they increasingly internalise principles of circularity. The “reward” is not only a higher quality of life for citizens, but also a promising economic potential: according to the European Commission, waste prevention, eco-design, reuse and similar measures could lead to net annual savings of 600 billion Euros.

Fostering a Systems Change

Circular Economy has long been seen as a primarily technical challenge, considering that resources needed to be transferred into long-lasting applications that could be easily recycled and kept in the loop. This approach overlooks how deeply the current linear model is rooted in regulatory frameworks, governance structures, processes, and human behaviour. Moreover, a hallmark of circular economy, namely business models that rely on providing services instead of selling products, are still sidelined in institutional structures. That’s why the transition to circular economy needs a systems approach and change. This is what we are working on through innovative programmes such as City Loops and by leading the discussion with all relevant stakeholders as in our Circular Economy on a City Level webinar. The CSCP and its partners have also developed the European Circular Cities Declaration, a commitment, guiding and learning platform designed to accelerate the transition to circular economy. We call on cities to sign the declaration and become circularity pioneers! Through our engagement at the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform – a key European platform – we are supporting the common work of all relevant actors, cities included, to make the transition to circular economy not only possible, but also fair and just for everyone.

Making Circularity Work for Citizens

The European Commission recognises the need to “make circularity work for people, regions and cities”. Innovation, education, and a huge shift in mobility and urban planning are all necessary steps towards circular cities and regions. Circularity is about engaging people – all people! It is about co-creation processes involving civil society, administrations, businesses, and academia. It is about experimenting and trying out new approaches as well as understanding what role human behaviour plays and how to incentivise behaviour change where it is needed. In our recent workshop Nudging and Beyond: Consumers Towards Circular Behaviours, as part of EU Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference 2020 , we explored the modalities of turning existing behavioural science and circular economy know-how into a step-wise process that makes it easier for consumers to take up circular behaviours. Conversely, analysing citizen’s behaviour can also inform about where interventions in the system are needed to make it work for people. In our CSCP initiative Consumer Insight Action Panel we do just that by looking at specific circular endeavours of our participants and explore its behaviour component to find the right solutions to enable circularity. The circular economy is not merely a technical feat and the “variable” human behaviour has often been overlooked but must be considered when designing successful circular systems. 

Circular Waste Management

As a classic responsibility of cities—waste management is related to numerous challenges: limited space, what to do with the different types of waste, low recycling rates. Designing circular processes reduces waste by design and reuses waste in highly efficient and innovative ways. On top of reducing pollution, a circular approach to waste management entails growth potentials for cities by keeping materials in the economy for as long as possible and minimising resource loss. Biowaste in particular is very promising from a circular perspective: think of biopesticides or bioplastics as prime examples. However, and despite its high decomposability, huge amounts of biowaste still end up on landfills. Cities are faced with challenges ranging from finding the right recycling technologies through to aligning with other stakeholders in the process. In our projects SCALIBUR and HOOP, we support cities in choosing, financing, and implementing technologies for recycling biowaste that work for all parties involved. Through our concept of Biowaste Clubs, we ensure that key local stakeholders along the entire biowaste value chain get involved, work together, and co-design solutions that yield real, positive impacts. We look forward to replicating and scaling up this expertise and unleashing the circular potential of waste management! 

Circular Public Procurement

The European Union is increasingly calling for a “purchase of works, goods or services that seek to contribute to the closed energy and material loops within supply chains, whilst minimising, and in the best case avoiding, negative environmental impacts and waste creation across the whole life-cycle”**. Through procurement, cities have a powerful tool at hand to incentivise circularity: circular demand triggers circular supply! We support the development and implementation of a circular procurement strategy and management, including definition of priorities, engagement of key actors, and capacity building.

Let’s Collaborate for Circular Cities

The transition to circular economy needs a comprehensive approach that looks to maximise the social, economic and environmental impacts while being inclusive and leaving no one behind. We are keen on supporting municipalities and stakeholders to develop strategic, long-term circular solutions that take into account multiple perspectives and use the overlapping between them in smart and impact-driven ways. Let’s join hands in making cities circularity champions!

For further information, please contact Cristina Fedato.

**EU, Green Public Procurement