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Circular Economy in urban areas, sustainable strategies

Over 90% of the raw materials used globally are not cycled back into the economy, resulting in massive overexploitation of the finite natural resources of our planet and burdening our climate. Greenhouse gas emissions and pollution have reached unprecedented levels, risking human livelihoods, food security, biodiversity as well as the general well-being of the planet. 

While looking for solutions, sustainability forerunners started moving away from the traditional and still widespread linear economy model of producing and using goods and services (take, make, dispose) to circular solutions (make, (re)use, recycle). Circularity has great potential to overcome global sustainability challenges in our world, reducing the use of raw materials and keeping the materials in the loop as long as it is feasible. This reduces and minimizes the ecological footprint of every human-made product, saving the Earth.

According to the UN Environment Statistics, a fully circular economy would both cut down our resource use by 28% and reduce carbon emissions by 72%. Cities are growth engines in need of supervision and control. They are the major contributors to climate change and responsible for up to 76% of the carbon emissions. Even though they occupy less than 2% of the Earth surface, they account for 75% of natural resource consumption and 50% of global waste production. On the solution side, cities are also magnets for creative potential and thus facilitators of societal transformation towards more sustainability in public as well as the private sector. Cities are among the most important actors which can positively influence development if they turn circular.

That said, there are challenges that need to be addressed to enable cities to pursue circularity. These include the need for technical innovation, creating new or redesigning existing infrastructure, understanding and tapping the potential for new business models, managing the shift to more sustainable and fair procurement as well as developing approaches to motivate citizens to adopt 

In urban areas the goal for sustainable strategies is to seek 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. By focusing on the following thematic topics which are present in every city we could progress towards circularity.

  • A built environment is one that is designed in a modular and flexible manner, sourcing healthy materials that improve the life quality of the residents and minimize virgin material use. The forms and constructs of buildings, infrastructure, districts and cities have the capacity to shape how we achieve circularity in every other part of the economy. (Components of buildings will be maintained and renewed when needed, while buildings will be used where possible to generate, rather than consume, power and food by facilitating closed loops of water, nutrients, materials, and energy, to mimic natural cycles.) 
  • An urban mobility system that is accessible, affordable, and effective. A multi-modal mobility structure that will incorporate public transportation, with on-demand cars as a flexible last-mile solution. Transportation will be electric-powered (from renewable energy), shared, and automated. Central to vehicle design will be remanufacturing, durability, efficiency and easy maintenance. 
  • An urban bio economy where nutrients will be returned to the soil in an appropriate manner while generating value and minimizing food waste. Nutrients could be captured within the organic fraction of municipal solid waste and wastewater streams and processed to be returned to the soil in forms such as organic fertilizer – used for both urban and rural agriculture.
  • Energy systems that are resilient, renewable, localized, distributed and allow effective energy use, reducing costs and having a positive impact on the environment. Visions on a circular economy have been formulated in response to concerns about resource scarcity and impacts associated with unsustainable use of resources. Replacing non-renewable resources, especially fossil fuels, by biomass is a corner stone in the circular economy. Even though the use of biomass grows, fossil fuels will probably be part of the energy mix for decades to come. Therefore, we also need to find solutions that reduce fossil carbon emissions in the near term and bridge to longer term development. 
  • Production systems that encourage the creation of ‘local value loops’. This means more local production and more diverse exchanges of value in local economies. The circular economy could also help in examine the food system in a comprehensive manner with the aim of minimizing food waste. Additionally, the transition to a circular economy would need • Circular Economy Legislation and Policies Governments and local authorities can play a major role in the transition towards CE. CE enabling legislation as well as incentive policies can drive producers and consumers towards a more circular economy. Prices of resources and products influence consumer and producer behavior. Thus, governments can influence this behavior by influencing prices by means of taxes and subsidies. Besides influence on prices, governments can also affect the ways in which consumers may be inclined to buy CE products. By providing CE labelling for products and companies consumer choices may also be affected. A further major level to be used by governments is a circular procurement strategy to scale-up markets and pull for innovation.
  • Awareness, Education and Research. This driver is on the top priority of the Zero Waste concept and also for the CE Cities concept. Without the right amount of environmental awareness and knowledge among governments and academia, society remains unable to achieve CE goals. Governments and scholars play an important role to disseminate knowledge to both producers as well as consumers by CE programs, transformative education, and research.