How cities are transforming circular rhetoric into reality

Written by: Joke Dufourmont | Published:
Building strong networks and sharing information across a city can raise the knowledge levels of local stakeholders by boosting human and social capital

Around the world 740 jurisdictions spanning 16 countries have now declared a climate emergency. It’s a huge statement of intent but we have yet to see the introduction of robust policies to make the rhetoric a reality.

An essential next step for city leaders and urban policy makers will be creating a circular economy to underpin those declarations and encourage us to live within our means.

As well as countering the depletion of natural resources, climate change and environmental degradation, a circular economy can bring jobs, investment and social capital, making cities more competitive and, crucially, more resilient.

Circle Economy is a Dutch social enterprise advocating the circular economy. We recently launched a new report, The Role of Municipal Policy in the Circular Economy, based on a study of more than 40 European cities. We identified three common practices adopted by municipalities across Europe that not only encourage and support circular economy ways of living, but also result in tangible socio-economic benefits for the city and its people.

Collaboration is key

The cities that have been most successful in developing a circular economy had shared societal and environmental objectives, which provided strategic direction to all stakeholders in the city and encouraged long-term thinking and collaboration over short-term budgeting.

Malmö in Sweden invited more than 100 companies to inform the development of a fossil fuel-free 2030 road map.

By engaging contractors, banks, suppliers and construction companies, Malmö was able to synchronise thinking around circularity and resource efficiency in the construction sector.

Stone wool insulation company ROCKWOOL testifies how this has made it significantly easier for stakeholders in the local construction chain to find project partners that share the long-term thinking that is required to transition to circularity.

Leverage support

Financial injections and public procurement are vital to helping circular initiatives establish a business, service immature markets, and take office in a city.Amsterdam has provided financial assistance to businesses in the circular economy through loans and subsidies.

One of those loans, combined with a reduced rent, has allowed architects association DOOR architecten to establish an office in the city.

Thanks to this support, its offices are not only centrally located, but also a prime example of circular construction as they are made from recycled, reusable and bio-based materials. The continued attention to circular criteria in tenders from municipalities across the Netherlands has allowed the architecture practice to expand its portfolio of projects and further pursue circularity in its work.

Employing soft policy instruments

Building strong networks and sharing information across a city can raise the knowledge levels of local stakeholders by boosting human and social capital.

The London Waste and Recycling Board supports SMEs that want to make their processes more circular through its Advance London business support programme. One example is Toast, a brewery that transforms surplus bread into craft beers, benefited from an analysis of its production process and gained valuable access to a business network, helping itto raise the profile of its product and mission.

Wayne Hubbard, chief executive officer of the London Waste and Recycling Board, said: “We know that cities can be a powerful force for change – particularly global capital cities like ours. We refer to them as the ‘engine room’ of the circular economy.

“With the right policy and investment conditions cities can attract innovators and entrepreneurs who create the business models, products and services needed to accelerate our transition. Our analysis shows that a circular economy in the capital will create new jobs; both in the short and long term.

“In the face of a climate crisis that will affect all of us we have to be using all the levers at our disposal to make this happen – and we know that cities can move more swiftly than national governments or international bodies to make the circular economy a reality.”

Governments can use the circular economy to ensure inclusive and sustainable development of cities, but they must put the right practices in place as a matter of urgency.


Barcelona is committed to further reducing the generation of municipal waste. The city’s Zero Waste Strategy encompasses a multitude of policy interventions to support households and organisations in contributing towards this goal.

To drive action for a zero waste city Barcelona has set strategic targets:

  • To reduce waste generation to less than 1.2 kg per inhabitant per day.
  • To reach recycling levels of 60% of municipal waste.
  • To reduce the polluted fraction of organic waste to below 8%.

The municipality supports citizens, organisations and businesses with these ambitions financially. For citizens, for example, the municipality has reformed waste taxation so it encourages source separation and is developing infrastructure for community composting for household biowaste.

In addition to strategic ambitions and financial support, Barcelona promotes green and circular behaviour among citizens and businesses by means of a multitude of measures – such as environmental education and information at green points in the city, distributing maps with sustainable shops and restaurants in the area, and seminars for creating more sustainable offices.


In 2015 the White Paper on the Circular Economy of Greater Paris was published, outlining 65 action proposals for the circular economy in Paris. In its Circular Economy Plan (CEP), the city stipulates it will prioritise 10 to 15 actions every year, as such annually readjusting its circular economy strategy in response to market changes within the city.

The 2017 to 2020 CEP sets targets for Paris in relation to the French national targets. They include a zero waste path for household waste and a 2019 deadline to sort all plastic packaging. Moreover, the municipality sets itself the ambition to run building sites that produce no waste from operations and require 100% recycled paper from public purchasing.

In its first roadmap the municipality has prioritised economic support in the shape of direct financial support and infrastructural provisions. Paris subsidises a refurbishing workshop that diverts donations (clothing, books, records, appliances and furniture) from going to landfill. The municipality also aims to further develop the service economy and ecodesign by incorporating lifecycle costing and circular indicators into public procurement practices.

To advance the reuse of secondary building materials, the Department of Heritage and Architecture aims to develop a warehouse that internalises the production of building materials from secondary materials. Eventuall, a network of warehouses within the department, will co-ordinate the production system and stock management will be organised with new software.

The city offers plenty of support to transition to circularity, ranging from knowledge sharing to training and education programmes. Among other interventions, the city organises repair cafes in schools, training on the reuse of building materials, and premise-sharing initiatives for organisations in the circular economy.


Amsterdam explored opportunities for the circular economy in 2015, in order to reduce the environmental impact of the city while simultaneously strengthening the local economy. The city developed three programmes contributing to circularity: Amsterdam Circular-Learning by Doing, Circular Innovation Programme 2016-2018 and the Waste Implementation Plan.

The city supports circular initiatives from a regulatory perspective in multiple ways. For example, urban planning guidelines include sustainability standards that promote the use of secondary and residual materials. Moreover, by introducing a flexible zoning law around the port the increased flexibility of building functions satisfies the need for more properties in the area.

From a financial perspective the municipality promotes circular criteria in public procurement. For example, the city council purchased office furniture from a provider committed to taking the old furniture back and refurbishing it. The municipality also provides loans for residents investing in energy-efficient housing, and has set up an investment fund for projects in the areas of climate, sustainability and air quality.

Through a collaboration with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, Amsterdam shares its city data with researchers, expresses city and citizen challenges, and allows for the use of the city as a testing ground for circular projects.


With the aim of developing a more sustainable city for the benefit of all, Birmingham City Council tackles its waste management in a way that reflects the wider environmental, social and economic landscape.

In 2016 Birmingham introduced a vision for its future waste management. The city wants to promote a circular economy by preventing waste generation, maximising recycling and reuse, and utilising waste as a resource in contributing to health, wellbeing and prosperity.

The city council supports businesses contributing to the diversion of waste from landfill by embedding waste prevention in its public procurement practices.

When it comes to household waste the city works with property developers to specify waste collection arrangements to ease separating waste for inhabitants, and develops alternative collection systems for flats and other households with difficult access.

The city council also adopts soft instruments to engage all inhabitants in a more circular economy. Awareness-raising campaigns are employed to influence the purchasing habits of consumers. Moreover, the city is looking into implementing a system that supports the sharing economy, such as an online platform.

FORCE: Copenhagen, Hamburg, Lisbon and Genoa

Copenhagen, Hamburg, Lisbon and Genoa have engaged in the joint FORCE project with the aim to minimise leakage of materials from the linear economy and instead work towards a circular economy. Each city takes the lead in one value chain of materials: plastic waste, strategic metals from electronic and electric equipment, surplus food and biowaste.

Together the cities implement a wide variety of policy instruments to support circularity. The four cities are developing infrastructure to divert waste from going to landfill. Hamburg will establish a separate collection of plastic films at five recycling station, Copenhagen will develop the infrastructure to collect and repair electric and electronic waste with repair shops in a pilot area of the city, and Lisbon will establish two repair shops to train and employ students and the unemployed people. Lastly, Lisbon will also improve the separation of wood materials in certain reception centres and strengthen the collaboration with local woodwork ateliers.

The cities also employ soft instruments to engage inhabitants in landfill diversion. For example, Hamburg is developing an online portal that guides households in deciding what to do with broken electric and electronic appliances.

Meanwhile Lisbon conducts online and offline food waste reduction and source separation campaigns.Furthermore, each of the cities develops knowledge and insights to better manage recycled waste. Copenhagen analyses the biowaste that is currently collected and Hamburg investigates which measures increase source separation of biowaste by households

Joke Durfourmont is head the jobs and skills programme at impact organisation Circular Economy

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