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Circular economy: A turning point for cities

After the industrial and technological revolutions that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, this century is probably the one of awareness. Indeed, it has been observed that human activity, its behaviours and its modes of operation have an undeniable impact on the resources of our planet as well as on its environment. To meet these challenges, many people have asked themselves to rethink our consumption and production models. Among the solutions considered, the circular economy seems to be one of the most promising. But what exactly are we talking about and what can we do at the scale of our cities?

Territoire circularite Image large 2 

Charlotte Ferrara, researcher at the Smart City Institute, proposes through this article to address these questions.

The circular economy: an alternative to the linear economy 

Over the past few years, it has become clear that our current production and consumption practices have a negative impact on the environment, as well as on social equity and long-term economic stability. The so-called "linear economy", widely accepted for so many years and built on the "extract-produce-use-discard" model, is showing its limits. There is therefore a pressing need for a transition to more sustainable systems. However, moving towards a more sustainable development of our societies and meeting the needs of all of us without compromising those of future generations requires a paradigm shift. The circular economy, by limiting resource waste and environmental impact, as well as increasing efficiency at all stages of the product economy, is without doubt part of the solution.

A brief look at the linear economy

In an economy based on the linear model, many products are made quickly from raw materials, designed to be used once or for a limited time without the possibility of being recycled. This economy therefore relies mainly on raw materials to create value. However, over the past few decades, this model has shown its limits, which has inspired many leaders to rethink the way they work and in particular to look at the so-called circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

In simple terms, the circular economy is about learning to do more with less. In a circular economy, raw materials and other materials are reused indefinitely. In this way, waste is limited or revalued, as it is, in turn, used as a resource. The loop is thus closed.
In this model, non-recyclable waste and recycling are to be avoided as much as possible. Indeed, recycling as well as revalorization of waste involves additional energy and environmental costs. Thus, in a circular economy, the quality of raw materials is maintained as much as possible throughout the life cycle of a product, from its design to its disposal.
When talking about the circular economy, the ‘eco-design’ concept therefore takes on its full meaning. It is about designing products that respect the principles of sustainable development and the environment, by using "as few non-renewable resources as possible in preference to the use of renewable resources, exploited while respecting their rate of renewal and associated with a recovery of waste that favours reuse, repair and recycling".

Definition of the circular economy

The concept of circular economy does not have a universal definition as it remains subject to diverse interpretations. Nevertheless, many authors and stakeholders agree on the proposal of Kirchherr, Reike, & Hekkert (2017) who define the circular economy as follows:

The circular economy is an economic system that replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco-industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations. It is enabled by novel business models and responsible consumers.

The three main principles of the circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), a leading UK charity that is very active in the field of the circular economy, defines the three key principles of the circular economy as follows:
  1. "Design out of waste and pollution": the concept of "waste" does no longer exists. Every product is designed to be disassembled and reused or composted.
  2. "Keeping products and materials in use": the life of products is extended through repair and maintenance and materials are kept in the economy through reuse, remanufacturing or recycling.
  3. "Regenerate natural systems": this principle is based on the concept of "waste is food". Every nutrient returned to the ecosystem should have a positive impact on the environment.


Explaining the Circular economy

Animated video - Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

When we talk about the circular economy, we commonly refer to the concept of the different "Rs". The most commonly used being those listed in the 3Rs model, for 'reduce', 'reuse' and 'recycle’. This model has a hierarchy as strategies are ranked according to their level of circularity, the highest being the most circular. Some countries (e.g. Korea, Vietnam) even base their circular economy policy on this framework. 
However, the most nuanced circularity scale is the 9Rs (shown in the diagram below), starting with R0 which simply refers to the term "Refuse". This scale thus illustrates which treatment options are preferable to others :
9R framework - EN 
  • Levels R0 to R2 - Refuse, Rethink, Reduce - relate to changes in product use and design. For example, avoiding the use of plastic cups and other single-use plastics, sharing cars instead of owning them, or making the same products with fewer raw materials.
  • Levels R3 to R7 - Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture and Reuse (for another purpose) - relate to the use phase of products. They aim to extend the life cycle of products as much as possible. Second-hand shops and repair centers such as Repair Cafés play a key role in this context.
  • Finally, levels R8 and R9 - Recycle and Revalue - deal with the end-of-life of products. Components can be reused, while materials can be recycled and, as a last option, incinerated with energy recovery.

The city: cradle of circularity

As explained in the definition above, thinking about the circular economy must take place at different levels: micro (products, companies, consumers), meso (eco-industrial parks) and macro (city, region, nation and beyond). Cities therefore have a role to play in the transition to a circular economy.
Moreover, according to the United Nations, almost 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, compared to 'only' 55% today and in Europe, around 75% of the population already lives in urban areas. These demographic challenges will most certainly have an impact on the consumption of cities, their waste production and their greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, they will have to face many challenges, such as improving housing, managing mobility or maintaining economic development. In this context, the circular economy, which enables a rethinking of how materials, products and goods are used to create value for all, represents an opportunity for cities and their leaders.
While the circular economy represents an opportunity for cities to ensure sustainability, cities themselves enable circular ecosystems and are seen as catalysts for circularity. Indeed, they have the advantage of bringing together all stakeholders and of having, among their citizens, the creative and innovative skills necessary for their development. It is therefore within cities that circular solutions to pressing problems and challenges are initiated and nurtured. Furthermore, the competent authorities can lead and accelerate the circular transition by installing a circular vision and strategy for cities, or by optimising infrastructure and logistics networks, connecting stakeholders with each other or facilitating circular initiatives.
The circular city thus makes it possible to create loops at the local level to generate territorial value by encouraging local actors to extend the useful life of materials or for example, by implementing economies of functionality or sharing.
By identifying and implementing circular solutions and thus saving resources, the circular city promotes growth, secures its supplies, creates jobs, reduces its C02 emissions and increases its competitiveness on global markets. Therefore, the circular economy provides multiple answers to many of the environmental, economic and geopolitical challenges cities are facing around the world.

Amsterdam: the world's first circular city ?

"In Amsterdam we want to ensure a good life for everyone, within the Earth’s natural boundaries. That can be done in a circular city in which we adopt a smarter approach to scarce raw materials, produce and consume differently, and in which there are more jobs for everyone. We are working on wellbeing, health, a pleasant living environment, a cleaner environment, and more justice, both within and beyond the city limits. " (Amsterdam Circular 2020-2025 Strategy, 2020).
Building a circular economy is one of the priorities of the city of Amsterdam. In line with its ambitions, the city has set concrete long-term targets, the two most important of which are to reduce the use of new raw materials by 50% by 2030 and to become a 100% circular city by 2050
In order to meet these ambitious aspirations, the city has drafted the Amsterdam Circular 2020-2025 strategy, which is based on the Donut theory and model developed by the British economist Kate Raworth. This model explains how companies and businesses can contribute to economic development within the limits of the planet, while meeting social needs.
In addition, the city's proposed strategy includes intermediate targets in 3 areas: (1) food and organic waste streams; (2) consumer goods; (3) the built environment. Each of these 3 value chains is associated with a number of ambitions. For example, the ambitions related to the second value chain - consumer goods - are as follows:
  • Ambition 1: The city sets a good example by reducing its consumption;
  • Ambition 2: Use what they have more sparingly;
  • Ambition 3: Make the most of discarded products.
Amsterdam is not alone in its ambition as it works with the Dutch government and Europe on policies to make the world a cleaner and fairer place. It is also working with the city's 7 districts as well as civil society, the private sector, other public organisations, academics and citizens.
Finally, in order to evaluate the progress made, Amsterdam is developing a monitoring system that will enable it to determine the social and ecological impact of its transition to a more circular economy (Amsterdam Circular Monitor, 2020). The aim of this tool is therefore to indicate if targets are being met and to identify areas where further efforts are needed.

What are the ambitions for Europe and Belgium?  

Amsterdam is not the only city that has set circular targets. Many governments and the European Union also have circular ambitions. In addition, European cities have a high density of knowledge, data and capital. This concentration enables them to drive forward circular economy agendas and unlock the economic, environmental and social benefits that are associated with them. 

En Europe

As part of Europe's new agenda for sustainable growth - the European Green Deal - the European Commission adopted the new Circular Economy Action Plan in early 2020, one of the main building blocks of the Green Deal. The EU's transition to a circular economy will not only reduce the pressure on natural resources but also generate sustainable growth and jobs. It is also a prerequisite for achieving the EU's 2050 climate neutrality target and for halting biodiversity loss.

En Belgique

Belgium also aims to be a forerunner of the circular economy and, through it, of a more sustainable society. The federal government and the country's three autonomous regions are all aligned to achieve this goal (UNEP). At the heart of this transition are science, technology and innovation. 
The Brussels government is among the pioneers in this field. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Brussels Environment, together with Ecocity Builders and the World Council on City Data, have developed a conceptual framework for monitoring the city's transition to a circular economy, including draft indicators to measure progress. UNEP is also working with Brussels (as one of its pilot cities) on a methodology to measure the number of jobs generated in a transition to a circular economy.
Wallonia is also clearly committed to a circular economy. Adopted in 2021, the circular economy deployment strategy - Circular Wallonia - aims to reduce waste and related costs as well as to create employment and innovative activity in Wallonia. Resulting from a participatory process, this strategy includes 10 ambitions translated into more than 60 measures (SPW).

A turning point for cities and municipalities

In conclusion, the implementation of a circular economy within cities and municipalities can therefore bring great economic, social and environmental benefits. If cities and municipalities can reduce traffic congestion, eliminate waste, reduce pollution and cut costs, the resulting higher economic productivity and new growth will enable them to seize new business opportunities that will promote skills development and employment, but also improve urban health and enhance social interaction in more attractive and liveable urban spaces, and thus prosper in a sustainable way.
Sources & références - To go further :
Scientific articles
Reports and websites 

Photo credit : Martin Fu - Unsplash

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