Why the urban circular economy is good, and why it’s not enough

By Federico Savini

Cities are destroying the planet. This may sound absurd, because most of us – planners, designers, architects – have been educated to believe the contrary: that cities will save the planet. The result was that we have focused massively on socio-technical innovation within cities but largely ignored the costs that this innovation would bring outside.

To be clear, the problem is not population growth in cities. Living in a dense urban environment remains one of the best pathways for reducing the human footprint on earth. It is cities’ increasing demand for materials, water and energy, and their waste that is destroying the planet.

Raw material demand for urban development is expected to double in 2050, while waste is expected to increase by 70%. The ecological footprint of most capital cities in Europe is half to two times larger than the entire biocapacity of the nations to which they belong. Material demand increases with urban development. Consumption by urban inhabitants increases at faster rates than population growth in cities. The higher GDP growth is in a certain city, the higher the proportion of non-essential consumption in this city’s ecological footprint. It is not population growth that leads to consumption, it’s the amount of stuff that each urban dweller consumes. Studies show that, within the ecological footprint of a city, the share of food and housing usually increases up to a certain point in urban development. After that point, it is the share of non-essential consumption, mobility and services that mainly increases. On average, people in cities consume at a faster pace than people outside cities, and travel longer distances. Many frequent flyers live a life of urban cycling when they’re in their home town. Yet, while some urbanites consume excessively, others don’t meet basic standards of living. The slums of the world are to be found in cities. Finally, what is consumed in cities is almost all imported from outside: Water, meat, energy, and the computer that you are using to read this post.

The new cogeneration and waste-to-energy plant built by IREN in Turin, Italy. This low carbon emission plant is used for the largest district-heating network in Italy and will save 135,000 tons of CO2 each year. Credits: Simone Tramonte / Climate Visuals Countdown (creative commons)

Under these conditions, the circular economy is certainly a promising model of development.  It aims to generate wealth while reducing cities’ material demand. It does so by focusing on the reuse of all valuable materials in cities; all that is discarded or not in use anymore. Because of this ambition, the circular economy became very popular.

The model links urban economic development with the ambition to reduce material demands. It promises a localization of value chains, bringing forward a new sector of urban productions and manufacturing. It is a project of post-industrial revival of cities. It also promises to generate economic value from something that has little value but is available excessively in cities – waste. Finally, its charisma springs from the fact that, to succeed, it needs a cultural shift in consumption. People must buy better, discard less.

The common ‘butterfly’ graph of the McArthur foundation shows that the inner circles of circular production and consumption are also those with the highest economic value. By circulation of waste, cities can generate economic wealth.

Despite this incredible potential, the circular economy has fundamental contradictions. By generating economic development, cities risks turning again to increased consumption. As explained before, more consumption, even if circular, generates more material demand. A new cycle of environmental degradation may start. There are both bio-physical and cultural reasons for this problem. To be processed, waste still requires input of primary materials and energy. Take concrete, the most consumed commodity on earth. For 100 tons of concrete generated through demolition, only 30 tons can be today efficiently reused. And to reuse that share, other 70 tons of fresh concrete (new sand, gravel and energy) need to be added. This is the second law of thermodynamics: reuse is a process that requires new inputs of energy and materials because energy transfers can never be reversed. But there are also cultural reasons: the rebound effects. Consuming ‘circular’ products without addressing the needs of those products will in turn generate new cycles of production and consumption. Buying circular allows consumers to redeem the environmental shame of consumption. The greenwashing of airports as ‘circular’ is one example of this process: by investing in circularity, we attract investments in a sector that is environmentally harmful. Finally, it is important to specify that if circular consumption is not matched with wealth redistribution it may become either ineffective or even discriminatory: poorer social groups might not be able to afford circular productions, labor conditions might not improve in the circular economy sectors and circular investments might be concentrated in high-value sectors where rates of return are more profitable.

Because of these contradictions, it is crucial to undertake a circular economy process that does two things: a) It maximizes the reuse of discarded materials and waste products in cities; b) It minimizes urban consumption overall, creating a cultural and regulatory shift that tackles urban consumption.

For the first of these targets, circular economies need a comprehensive policy framework in cities. This framework must combine stick and carrot strategies. It should incentivize circular productions by giving spaces, resources, and human capacities. But it must also de-incentivize linear productions by means of taxation and downsize environmentally harmful forms of production.

For the second of these targets, circular economies must engage citizenship to make circular citizens, not circular products. This means generating social relations around discarded materials. Develop a new culture of urban production and responsible consumption. Moreover, it must promote a lifestyle that minimizes consumption at the source. Reducing excess consumption, while upgrading the living conditions of those that cannot meet basic needs.

To be clear, satisfying the same (or even increasing) consumption needs through circular products is not achieving that goal. It is just shifting environmental costs to those areas where recovered materials and new materials are processed. Moreover, a circular production system will never be fully circular if it depends on growth and competition to survive. Circular productions will search for productivity gains, generate new consumption needs and, in turn, increase the relative intake of raw materials.

Man sorting out garbage at the Negombo Municipal Council MSW Compost Unit, Western Province,Sri Lanka. Credits: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI, Climate visuals, Creative Commons

If we look at the cities that implement circular economy frameworks, we can see that urban governments are not (yet) undertaking this full spectrum of circular strategies. Early data shows that, now, only the first is starting to work. Cities are incentivizing urban productions, but the metabolism (the material throughput of cities) is not decreasing. For example, in Amsterdam, one of the pioneers of circular economy policies, material demands have not decreased so far. According to the ‘circular monitor’ of the municipality, only during COVID there has been a slow down of material streams. This may change in the future, but not likely if the reduction side of circularity is taken as a priority.

In sum, to assess the potential of circular economy strategies it is essential to question the whole spectrum of measures targeting consumption and production. Both incentivizing new patterns of production/consumption and downscaling those of consumption. These are two different policies, and it would be a mistake to believe that doing the first exclusively would automatically lead to the second. Years of failed sustainability and energy efficiency measures show that this step is not automatic.

The main approach of current policy making is propositional. It incentivizes circular productions and circular consumption. The aim is to ‘reduce’ by ‘increasing’ differently. Yet, while this strategy may be the fast n convince the public, it may not lead to the expected results. It is essential to define policies that target excess consumption and match this with social redistribution.

Text adapted from invited intervention at ISOCARP congress, Brussels, 5 October 2022.

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