The third version of the World Circular Economy Forum will take place next June 3-5 in Helsinki, Finland. The Circular Economy Platform of the Americas will be participating on the session "Scaling up the circular economy in cities", therefore, this article is dedicated to analyzing the opportunities brought by a circular economy to cities.
Urban concentration has meant different sustainability challenges. By 2050, it is estimated that the population of the Americas will increase by 23% (1.2 billion people), with 80% of the population living in urban areas (United Nations 2015). The challenges we face with this panorama, and being aware that we are operating in a linear economic model of take-make-dispose, are several, for instance:
Mobility challenges: Some studies suggest that regulations are needed to promote quality public transport and actions to address the impact of using cars and motorbikes on the environment[ii]. Mobility challenges in some of the biggest cities in Latin America have had a negative impact on inhabitants’ quality of life. It’s been stated that Sao Paulo and Bogotá are some of the most congested cities in the world, although governments have implemented massive transportation systems[iii].
Urban planning challenges: The settlement of new people in the cities of Latin America (LA) has represented urban planning challenges. Currently, LA has been working on shifting the planning model towards a more democratic model, with larger citizen participation and aiming to influence the aspects that generate environmental damage in cities[iv].
These realities lead us to wonder which opportunities a Circular Economy offers to face sustainability challenges in the Americas?
What is a Circular City?
To understand the opportunities offered by a Circular Economy for the cities of the Americas, it is important to understand what is a "Circular City". As it has been reported, there is no a specific definition of circular city, but a vision stated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as follows[v]:
"A circular city embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative, accessible, and abundant by design. These cities aim to eliminate the concept of waste, keep assets at their highest value at all times, and are enabled by digital technology. A circular city seeks to generate prosperity, increase livability and improve resilience for the city and its citizens, while aiming to decouple the creation of value from the consumption of finite resources"
This vision highlights the importance of urban planning and the design of cities that are regenerative and accessible. Moreover, it is important innovating in urban metabolism design, by rethinking the way in which material flows are managed in order to eliminate the concept of waste. In addition, preserving the value of assets is also important, in this case we can rethink how to preserve the value of buildings, vehicles, roads and other urban assets over time through models of repair and remanufacturing. The goal of a circular city is to increase resilience and citizens’ quality of life.
Considering the context of the cities of the Americas, I think it is important to define what the vision of a circular city would be. I propose this vision "a circular city in the Americas is one where the principles of the circular economy are incorporated in the design of sustainable buildings, mobility plans, urban planning, materials management and industrial activities, in order to create inclusive cities, healthy environments and to create positive impacts on the environment. A circular city is one that is based on innovation to serve its citizens and to respect planet Earth”
Some examples of circular cities in the world
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has presented the case studies of 11 cities worldwide that have implemented actions based on the principles of the circular economy. These include Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Austin (United States), Belo Horizonte (Brazil), Brussels (Belgium), Glasgow (Scotland), London (England), Peterborough (England), San Francisco (United States), Shenzhen (China), Toronto (Canada) and Venlo (Netherlands). The initiatives developed by these cities range from migrating to an electric mobility system in Shenzhen, to launching a regional Circular Economy program in Brussels[vi].
In these cases, there are 3 cities of the Americas, for example, Austin has developed a marketplace of materials that allows the online exchange of materials to avoid them to end up in landfills. From 2018, San Francisco began to install in the city buildings Cradle - to - Cradle-Certified® carpets, which shouldn’t contain antimicrobials, fluorinated compounds, flame retardant chemicals or other harmful chemicals. In Belo Horizonte, local authorities created a computer reconditioning center, aiming to facilitate digital inclusion, develop the skills of citizens and reduce waste generation.
What is the current state of the Cities of the Americas in terms of Circular Economy?
Although some cases have been documented by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is important to analyze what is happening in some of the biggest cities of the Americas such as Bogotá, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile.
Bogotá, Colombia: with more than 8 million inhabitants, the capital of Colombia presents serious challenges of mobility, pollution, job creation and urban planning. Following the recent National Development Plan that proposes the creation of a Circular Economy National Strategy, local authorities have supported some initiatives such as the Materials Innovation Center, which has been launched by Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in collaboration with the municipality of Bogotá through the Secretariat for Economic Development, the Chamber of Commerce of Bogotá and Colciencias and linking other entities of importance in the business and academic sectors. This center seeks to articulate research capacities of universities with businesses’ needs by generating solutions in materials that respond to the current challenges of sustainability. Recently, in a first open event they discussed innovation, circular economy and materials transformation.
Moreover, taking into account social challenges such as inclusion and informality of the recycling sector of the city, the municipality launched the Agreement 480 of 2017 which is considered a " ... A tool to join the strategy of transforming Bogotá into a sustainable city through the concept of circular economy with the social need of taking actions to include waste pickers who are strategic stakeholders in the sustainable development of the city"
In addition, in the city of Bogotá have emerged some change agents such as the EAN university, which started to build the EAN Legacy building, being the first construction in Latin America inspired by Cradle to Cradle® design principles[vii] .
Mexico City: This year, the government of the capital of Mexico announced its program "Zero Waste and Circular economy", supported by the European Union. Moreover, some consultancy services have emerged seeking to advice on circular economy, as is the case of Futuro Circular Consulting and iX Agency.
Santiago de Chile: Some circular economy actions in Santiago have been inspired by the REP Law (Producer extended responsibility law) led by the Ministry of the Environment of the country. Recently, the "Santiago Recicla” program was launched in Santiago, seeking to build a culture of recycling among citizens. At the national level, Chile created the Office for Circular Economy of the Ministry of the Environment with the aim of establishing a roadmap for the Circular Economy in the country. Moreover, CORFO launched an open contest called "Innovation prototypes-circular economy" to select promising circular initiatives and support them with funds.
Some private entities have also launched some initiatives seeking: educate consumers for a circular economy as is the case of AdC circular, innovate in plastics for a circular economy as is the case of Comberplast, and innovate in water treatment plants to reuse water, generate their own energy and generate zero waste as is the case of Biofactoria Andean Waters.
What opportunities does the Circular economy offer for the cities of the Americas?
With three examples of what is happening in the cities of the Americas in terms of Circular Economy, we can state that there are many opportunities to rethink the lineal economy in which our cities are operating. The emergence of circular cities in the region is still at a very early stage, and we can do a lot to support the transition towards a Circular Economy in our cities.
In this session, I present some opportunities to facilitate the transition to a circular economy in our cities[viii]:
Urban planning for a Circular economy: The planning of our cities must focus on enabling quality of life of citizens. In this way, embeding the principles of circular economy into planning would allow a greater proximity of the places where people live, work and have fun. It is also important to increase the use of vehicle sharing schemes to improve mobility and to encourage the use of zero-emission vehicles.
Circular design: Rethinking the elements that circulate in our cities is fundamental to achieve sustainability. Thus, it is important that from the design stage we apply circular economy principles to buildings, vehicles, infrastructure and goods. Our cities should prioritize the implementation of design strategies such as design for durability, modularity, repairability and disassembly, and the circulation of non-harmful materials.
Renewable energies: to achieve a circular city, it is imperative to make the energy transition to non-renewable energy sources, this mitigates climate change effects and provides energy security and air quality for our cities.
To encourage the repair and maintenance of infrastructure and goods: the migration towards more sustainable lifestyles will lead us to models where the repair of goods, the use of secondhand goods, and the maintenance of assets, are facilitated for citizens.
We invite you to reflect on this topic and to nurture the dialogue around circular cities in the Americas. If you would like to continue the dialogue on this topic, please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
[vii] Learn about Cradle to Cradle® Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=27&v=Q8qlPL_R1-A
[viii] Inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's vision. Available here: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/CE-in-Cities-Project-Guide_Mar19.pdf