“A growing and wealthier global population are straining the biocapacity of our planet. In the densely populated and prosperous Netherlands, for example, we consume more than three times what the Dutch ecosystem can produce, while globally we consume 1.7 times what the Earth can produce. The current rate of resource consumption is unsustainable, both for society and for the businesses that now depend on natural resource consumption,” reads an Oliver Wyman report on the circular economy. “A sustainable level of resource consumption can be achieved by moving away from the linear, take-make-dispose economic model and towards a circular economy based on the principle of reduce-reuse-recycle.”
The concept behind the circular economy could be said to date back to ancient times. In the modern era, the circular economy was re-popularized in China in the 1990s in response to the rapid economic growth and severe natural resource limitations seen in the Asian nation more than any other large economy in recent decades. Since then, the circular economy has been a regular feature of academic papers and has become widely accepted by experts around the world as a necessary evolution of our current wasteful linear model. However, despite our long understanding of the unsustainability of the linear model, the world today is only 9% circular and that figure is reducing rather than increasing as upward trends in resource extraction and emissions continue.
“The circular economy, an eastern reality, is fast becoming a western cause. We see the proliferation of new and established businesses embracing recycling and circularity,” says Samir Saran, President at Observer Research Foundation, in the Circularity Gap Report. “Understanding around the distribution of benefits and the long term impacts for big and small economies is yet to be fully deciphered. Who will benefit from this new opportunity? How will value be transferred to those who most require it? And, will the ownership and benefits be once again captured by the incumbents?”
The circular economy is what it sounds like, rather than using our materials and throwing them away, we use them and reuse them. Circle Economy, authors of the Circularity Gap Report, define the circular economy as a "system that operates within our planetary boundaries by feeding products, components, untapped resources, and materials back into the appropriate value chains". While the UN states that the circular economy “works by extending product lifespan through improved design and servicing and relocating waste from the end of the supply chain to the beginning". And one place that needs the circular economy more than most is our growing cities.
Cities make up just 2% of the earth’s surface but account for 85% of global GDP generation and 75% of natural resource consumption. Cities also produce 50% of global waste and 60-80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to an Ellen Macarthur Foundation report. “With their high concentration of resources, capital, data, and talent spread over a relatively small geographic area, cities are uniquely positioned to drive a global transition towards a circular economy,” the report continues.
Numerous cities around the world are now adopting circular economy policies and initiatives. Official “strategies” have been set up in Bogota, Copenhagen, and Helsinki, more detailed “roadmaps” have been established in Brussels, Santiago, and Paris. There is an “action plan” in Lisbon, and a “framework” in Rome, but the most progressive circular economy “programs” appear to be in the increasingly smart European cities of Rotterdam and Barcelona.
Rotterdam is famous for its modern architecture, so it is not surprising that more than 60% of the city’s waste comes from the construction sector. Now the city has set an ambition to make the circular economy common practice 2030 and to have the primary use of raw materials reduced by 50% compared to today. Rotterdam highlights four key sectors on which their circular program will focus; construction, green energy, consumer goods, and care.
“The road towards the circular economy requires us to rethink and review our attitude towards the city. This change is absolutely essential. If the trend is not broken, the demand for a large number of primary raw materials will far exceed supply,” states Rotterdam Circular, the city’s official platform. “We are working to improve products, reduce waste and change our attitude to waste. We are working to increase the number of jobs related to the circular economy. And, finally, we are viewing our products, services, methodology, and the design of the city through circular glasses, to find out how we can do things differently at the forefront.”
The Mediterranean city of Barcelona is known for its data-friendly urban grid which makes up the majority of the metropolitan area and surrounds the more organically developed old city center. The city’s circular economy initiatives also fall into four main groups; food, fashion, mobility, as well as urban planning, and the built environment. The last group focuses on the challenges of energy and water management in buildings, in addition to construction systems focused on recycling existing materials and increasing the transparency of material sourcing.
“Finding solutions to reduce the consumption of raw materials, eliminate waste and accelerate the transition to renewable energies requires an exercise of innovation and collective imagination in which we must all rethink what and how we produce, use and consume,” reads the official Barcelona Circular City 2021 report. “The solutions proposed by the participants of Barcelona Circular City represent an opportunity for the city's stakeholders to innovate, improve people's quality of life, and increase their competitiveness, while at the same time solving serious environmental problems such as greenhouse gas emissions and the depletion of natural resources.”
A key stakeholder group in Barcelona and all cities are buildings, where owners, managers, and occupants all have a responsibility to play their part in driving the circular economy. Buildings alone account for 40% of total energy consumption and are a huge generator of physical waste. The built environment consumes vast amounts of raw materials, which are generally only used once in their high-value form and often produced using an energy-intense production process. However, the circular economy is not about getting better at salvaging parts from demolished buildings, but moving to a point where those components are essentially “leased” to the building for a period of time, before being recovered and “leased” to the next building. We must start to design building components with their reuse in mind.
“Imagine a world where buildings are flexibly changed, adapted, expanded, and reduced according to demand or use. A world where deconstruction and redeployment are much more commonplace. Where a building’s value is not seen as a short-term capital cost but a future resource investment in which buildings and even individual components are recoverable, relocatable, and returnable. Imagine building components and modules being leased then returned to the owner when no longer needed as part of a vibrant, competitive marketplace working to and aligned by common standards,” says Martin Hunt, principal project manager Forum for the Future.
“It’s an exciting and ambitious vision and one that we will only achieve through systems change,” concludes Hunt in an article for Ethical Corporation. “We need to create a new market that engages multiple stakeholders, addresses the root causes of unsustainable practice, and encourages the replication of successful commercial models. It will take time to transition from niche, pioneering activities into mainstream… but it needs to start with making a credible business case of investment.”