Growth based on industrialisation spurs urban density and increased the consumption of resources. The combined effects of globalisation, automation, and urbanisation have impacted cities around the world. Current levels of consumption are generating unprecedented amounts of waste, which exacerbate the negative environmental effects of increased extraction. The Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies (IIPS) blog presents the concept of a circular economy as a solution for effective waste utilisation in urban cities, paving the way for a more sustainable future.
- What is a circular economy?
- How can a city transition to a circular economy?
Urban populations are growing at unprecedented rates around the world. Material consumption is expected to grow by 40 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 90 billion tonnes in 2050 (UN, 2018). As cities continue to extract and consume natural resources, the level of waste generated is exponentially increasing with time. Extraction and consumption are also resource-intensive processes as large amounts of water and energy are required. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the world’s energy is consumed in cities, accounting for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions (UNFCCC, 2020). Cities are also where the highest amount of waste is generated. According to the World Bank, cities generate 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste per year, which is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. Therefore, there is an urgent need to embrace a more sustainable and viable model of production, consumption, and waste management to ease the burden of resource depletion and waste disposal.
What is a Circular Economy?
Creating a more sustainable future that allows the natural environment to restore its resources and protect itself from the negative effects of industrialised waste is becoming more and more critical with increasing urbanisation and population growth. Between 1900 and 2015, the urbanised population increased from 14% to 54% and is forecasted to rise to 66% by 2050. Resource extraction increased 12-fold between 1900 and 2015 and is expected to double by 2050. The concept of a circular economy was perceived in the 1970s to promote a world where nothing goes to waste. Presently, this has become a vision for progressive leaders and campaigners. The concept can be defined as an economic system that is based on business models which replace the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering materials in production, distribution, and consumption processes. The aim is to achieve sustainable development in a manner that attains environmental equality, economic prosperity, and social equity for the benefit of future generations (Kirchherr, 2017).
The linear model of economies was developed while input commodities were cheap and widely available, but it is no longer sustainable, making it necessary to achieve a new and more sustainable model. The circular model challenges this approach by useful application of materials, extension in the lifespan of products and their parts, and smarter product use and manufacture. The circular economy concept can be visualised through two dimensions, before use and after use. Upstream circularity (before use) concerns managing resources efficiently, improved productivity in the production and consumption process, minimising waste, and keeping production costs as low as possible. Downstream circularity (after use) concerns preserving the value in waste materials and maximising the extraction of value. Three principles characterise the circular economy, namely, value preservation, resource optimisation, and system effectiveness. More than 80 per cent of the global GDP is generated in cities which makes them ideal for the implementation of circular economies.
Transitioning to a Circular City
A circular city embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative and restorative by design. In such a city, the idea of waste is eliminated by utilising assets at maximum productivity by the use of digital technologies. Generating economic prosperity and resilience for future generations is a necessary outcome of decoupling value creation from the consumption of finite resources. Amsterdam, one of the leaders in the application of circular economy concepts, follows seven principles in its transition towards a circular economy namely, closed-loop, reduced emissions, value generation, modular design, innovative business models, region oriented reverse logistics, and natural systems upgradation. The demand for responsible products has been fueled by a growing awareness of the linear economic model of consumption. Keeping in mind the drivers of cities’ interest in circular solutions, a circular economy could enable the creation of supply chains that feed residual outputs from one process as inputs to another, recover resource value of materials where new value can be created from the same materials, and improve the usage of products through shared-use.
Cities are taking opportunities to improve efficiency and environmental impact by embedding circular economy principles in urban infrastructure and services, from mobility to energy to healthcare. With growing urban populations comes the need to build greater infrastructure. 75 per cent of infrastructure required by 2050 is not yet in place today and $41 billion is the cost of refurbishing old and building new infrastructure only through to 2030. If the construction sector continues to use traditional methods, it could devastate the environment, atmosphere, natural resources, health, and economy. Therefore, cities need to provide incentives to builders to take a more holistic approach towards design, construction, maintenance, operation, and after-life use of buildings. Multistakeholder collaborations between city municipalities, construction and waste industries, building owners, innovation agencies, and universities can effectively begin to map such flows throughout a city, improving the ability to anticipate future availability of resources.
The linear methods of production and consumption are unsustainable for the planet. As urbanisation continues, the need for resources will grow if the current consumption trajectory or urban cities continues. For cities, this means increased waste. The linear model of “produce, use, dispose of” is wasteful by design, while the circular economy is conceptualised as a continuous cycle of value preservation and resource optimisation, presenting sustainable alternatives for eliminating waste.
- Urban populations are growing at unprecedented rates around the world. Material consumption is expected to grow by 40 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 90 billion tonnes in 2050.
- As cities continue to extract and consume natural resources, the level of waste generated is exponentially increasing with time.
- Extraction and consumption are also resource-intensive processes as large amounts of water and energy are required.
- It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the world’s energy is consumed in cities, accounting for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions.
- Cities are also where the highest amount of waste is generated. According to the World Bank, cities generate 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste per year, which is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.