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Circular economy: where do Belgian municipalities stand?

The 6 key observations of our survey

On May 16, 2023, Benoit Ruysschaert, PhD researcher at the Smart City Institute and the Centre for Environmental Science at UHasselt, presented the first findings of a survey among Belgian municipalities as part of his research on the circular economy. The objective: to understand how and to what extent the circular economy is adopted in our cities and municipalities. This article summarizes the first results of the survey, which were presented at the Smart Inspiration Day 2023

Blog - enquête Benoit Russschaert circularite - Image large

About the survey

This survey, a Belgian premiere, was carried out at the end of 2022 among the 581 Belgian municipalities and recorded a high response rate, since it gathered answers from more than half of the municipalities in our country (response rate of 54%). This makes it possible to obtain representative results at the level of regions, provinces, but also at the level of the size of our municipalities.

A zero measurement to draw up a first Belgian state of art

First of all, where did the idea of launching such a survey come from? Benoit Ruysschaert explains: " When I started my research almost two years ago, we could only speculate on the extent to which Belgian local governments were working on the circular economy, as no study on the subject was available. In order to study this topic, we had to make a kind of zero measurement to see where we were, and this was the first objective of this study.
In addition, we want to see whether there are different types of approaches adopted by local governments, and whether these differences can be linked to the region of implementation or the size of a municipality, for example. So through this survey, we will have a better understanding of how local governments are working on the circular economy and where we are today to see in the future if we are making progress. "
So what are the lessons to be learned? Our team has summarized for you, in 6 points, the main observations that emerged during the Smart Inspiration Day 2023.

The circular economy has already convinced nearly 60% of our municipalities

To be quite accurate, the rate of responding municipalities claiming to have adopted the circular economy revealed by the survey was 59%. What about if we look more specifically at our 3 regions? It seems that the Brussels municipalities are particularly involved in this dynamic, since 83% of them claim to have embarked on the circular economy (compared to 55% for Flanders, and 62% for Wallonia). Finally, it should be noted that the study shows that the larger a city is (i.e. in terms of number of inhabitants or surface area), the more likely it is to have adopted the circular economy in its public policies.

A relatively low level of maturity, however

But how are our municipalities currently engaging in the circular economy? Our study reveals that it is mainly through one or more projects (completed, in progress, or planned) only that the circular economy is formalized (a little over 30%), and that there are still very few strategies specifically dedicated to the topic (barely 2% of the municipalities that indicated having adopted the circular economy).
When projects are associated with a specific plan, it is most often the climate plan (Flanders and Brussels) or the "Plan Stratégique Transversal (PST)" (Wallonia).
" We note that 37% of respondents indicated only one type of formalization (in most cases, one or more projects) but also that 30% of respondents indicated a maximum of two types of formalization, for example: one or more projects + their integration into the PST or the Climate Plan. This suggests that nearly 7 out of 10 municipalities are still at a relatively early stage in the establishment of their circular economy initiatives," emphasizes Benoit Ruysschaert.
Finally, it should be noted that this level of maturity remains more or less the same when we look at the regions/nature of the municipalities, with, however, a slight increase for the urban municipalities and the Brussels municipalities.

4 main drivers for municipalities to engage in the circular economy

Through this survey, we also asked our municipalities what their main motivations were for getting involved in the circular economy. Here are the 4 main reasons that emerged, which clearly demonstrate a desire to move towards greater sustainability:
  1. To fight climate change
  2. Tackling other environmental problems
  3. To improve the social situation of their community
  4. Improving the image/ reputation of their community
Economic opportunities and material scarcity, on the other hand, were less considered reasons, although they are the initial objective of the circular economy.
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Lack of funding remains the #1 obstacle to the deployment of the circular economy at the local level

Just as it was one of the major obstacles mentioned in our Walloon Smart Cities barometer (2021), the lack of funding was pointed out by respondents as the major obstacle to the development of the circular economy within their municipality, followed by the lack of knowledge and awareness. Responses that therefore reflect, more globally, a lack of resources within the communes. The lack of appropriate regulations or policies or political support were also noted (in 3rd and 4th place).

Electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, textiles as lower priority value chains

When it comes to the circular economy, 7 product value chains are usually mentioned, touching on very specific production sectors: construction, textiles, batteries and vehicles, plastics, packaging, food/water and nutrients, and finally electronics and ICT. In our survey, we sought to find out which sectors are more or less of a priority for our municipalities when integrating the circular economy into their public policies.
Food, water and nutrients emerged as the most important product value chain, linked to the bioeconomy, where the circular economy is also very successful. Closely followed by the construction sector.
Chaines de valeurs EC - Article blog enquete SCI
On the other hand, we note that electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, and finally textiles appear to be the three least important value chains for our municipalities. Benoit Ruysschaert explains: " Although the production of textiles is one of the big value chains in the world due to the very big impact of the textile industry, it seems that it is not such a developed / strategic sector in our country.
On the other hand, the circular potential related to technologies, i.e. how technologies can support the circular economy but also how the digital can become more circular, seems to be a lower priority issue for our municipalities. However, the survey has identified an approach that tends to involve civil society more by focusing the deployment of the circular economy on digital, and that is seen more in Flanders and/or in more urban municipalities."

Acting as an example to stimulate the circular economy

Finally, a last question in our survey was about the instruments that are important to our municipalities in order to stimulate the development of the circular economy in their territory. So what incentives are our local governments counting on? The results highlight 3 main actions:
  1. Leading by example
  2. Providing funding
  3. Informing stakeholders
These results give a very positive signal that Belgian local governments are aware that they have to set a good example, to gain credibility before convincing other stakeholders to go circular, but also that they have a crucial role to play in raising awareness among all stakeholders.
Did you find these results interesting? Good news: The results of the survey will be refined in the form of a report, available soon.

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