All kinds of actors and resources are naturally concentrated in cities - a superb laboratory in which to develop the circular economy.
The 2C Conferences have resumed at La REcyclerie ! Organized by the Veolia Foundation, they aim to help young people understand the major issues in the circular economy. The first conference in the 2017 session focused on the theme of the cities as an ideal place for implementing this new economic model.
The main principles of the circular economy
Our economy currently uses a linear system: extract - produce - throw away. A system that has led to the over-consumption of natural resources. And as a result, we now find ourselves in an ecological debt situation – which means that we are extracting resources faster than the planet can regenerate them.
It is particularly worrying because it is linked to another major 21st century issue: the global population explosion. By 2050, the world will be home to 9 billion people – all needing water, natural resources and energy.
In order to provide enough resources for the global population, we will have to switch to a more virtuous system: the circular economy. The objective? To reduce the consumption of natural resources and disconnect them from economic growth. How? By maximizing how we use resources. Among other things it includes recovering and reusing the materials in our waste. Today, of the 4 billion tonnes of waste generated each year, only 25% is recovered although 80% could be exploited. Unlike the linear system, the circular economy cycle works on the principle of extract - produce - reuse.
The circular economy is built on 7 major pillars:
- Recycling: reusing raw materials from waste is the most well-known circular economy principle.
- Re-use: returning the product to the economic circuit in its original state (for example by reselling or giving it away)
- Repair: mending broken items
- Recovery: recovering the components for use in other design cycles. Ségolène Royal has for example championed a law to reuse second-hand spare parts in vehicle repairs.
- The functionality economy: buying the use of a product rather than the product itself. For example, Autolib sells a mobility service rather than cars.
- Ecodesign: designing a product with its entire life cycle in mind, so that it can be recycled or reused once obsolete.
- Industrial and territorial ecology: creating networks of actors in the same local area in order to optimize exchanges of streams and materials.
What are the challenges for cities?
By 2050, 75% of the world's population will be urban. This means a large concentration of actors and raw material deposits in the one place. Cities are therefore an ideal place for rolling out the circular economy, networking actors, and optimizing flows.
A large number of cities have already begun this paradigm shift. For example, in the Pas-de-Calais, the mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle considers the city as an ecosystem. The town is eco-managed in collaboration with the local people via short circuits and circular economy loops.
And in 2015 the Paris city council organized a circular economy summit from which it drew up a white paper. It was one of the first local government organizations to set up sustainable public demand and encourage players to move towards more sensible projects: reduce food waste, limit the use of disposable products, work hand in hand with citizens and businesses, etc.
Another major issue for cities: in France, the circular economy could create 200,000 (non-delocalizable) jobs within 10 years.
Legislative and regulatory framework
As things stand, it is always more expensive for companies to recycle their waste than bury it. In order to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, regulation is therefore an essential lever in creating the momentum needed to build a virtuous framework.
Regulation could operate at two levels. Financially, by taxing polluting activities and encouraging exemplarity. And collaboratively by fostering cooperation between all the stakeholders in the same territory. Fortunately, it is moving in the right direction and in recent years a number of incentives have been introduced.
In France, for example, the energy transition law introduced ambitious targets for businesses: introduction of responsible channels, tariffs incentivizing waste reduction, reduction of VAT on goods designed using circular economy principles, help for territories in bringing about change and organizing local loops, etc.
Eqosphere, city-wide networking
Eqosphere is a Veolia partner and pioneering French social startup created in 2012. Its core business is reducing food waste. In France, 10 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year - on average 26 kg per person and 140 euros’ worth.
In just a few years, the company has succeeded in creating a network of a large number of public, private and civil society actors to recycle the food waste in their garbage - a good example of a circular economy at city level.
In practice Eqosphere's teams examine the potential of the resources wasted by their customers and make recommendations to guide that waste into the most efficient reuse or recovery channels. The goal: never send anything to actors if it would not be useful or would produce waste.
For Xavier Corval – the founder of Eqosphere - tackling the problem of food waste through the circular economy provides 2 types of answers:
- In economic terms making use of the tonnes of food creates value
- In terms of solidarity setting up anti-waste schemes means the solidarity economy is able to avoid shortages. Eqosphere has thus doubled Auchan’s food donations. A remarkable improvement given that 9 million people in France live below the poverty line.
In conclusion, the circular economy has exciting potential for its economic, environmental and social performance in cities. But it will only work effectively if it is deployed on a large scale. To change our ecological debt situation, the challenge is changing hearts and minds - but above all business, local government, associations and citizens all have to work together.
The next 2C Conference will be held on March 28th on the "How the circular economy is inspired by nature and serves it".