Waste management is a global problem. Every year, approximately 2 billion tonnes of waste are dumped all over the planet and end up in landfill sites or scattered across the ocean. What can cities do with the tonnes of waste produced every day in order to protect the environment and secure a better quality of life for everyone?
Cities in Europe have been struggling to find ways to increase waste collection and improve waste management – a core competence of many city governments – while also promoting the circular economy through, among other things, the ‘right to repair‘. That means forcing companies to design more easily repairable electronic equipment, make parts available, and put an end to so-called planned obsolescence, thereby reducing waste.
From 20-28 November, the EU also promoted the European Week for Waste Reduction, carrying out awareness-raising actions about sustainable resource and waste management.
Valladolid is at the forefront of this battle, having worked on improving waste collection and management since the 1990s. Valladolid was one of the first Spanish cities to commit to the circular economy, signing the Declaration of Seville in 2017 – recently updated as the Declaration of Valladolid in June 2021 – and developing a roadmap to lead the city into a more sustainable economic approach.
“Understanding the individual responsibility we have to achieve the goal of zero waste is vital to have the opportunity to achieve it”
– Rosa Huertas González, Director of the Innovation, Economic Development, Employment and Commerce Area of the City of Valladolid
The city also launched a subsidy programme that has supported almost 100 projects and has created a local community of companies, entrepreneurs and associations committed to this economic model.
Numerous actions have also been launched and presented during this visit, such as the Circular Urban Laboratory, the Aran Valley Innovation HUB to promote creativity and public-private partnerships, as well as the Waste Observatory related to better use of waste or the R&D&I centre, the last two within the framework of the Valladolid Waste Treatment Centre.
Their Circular Labs, an EU-funded Interreg project, aims to integrate a circular economy and new business models to reduce waste, think of new forms of integrated management strategies and an innovative economic model to maximise the life cycle of products and resources.
And citizens’ engagement is a fundamental piece of the puzzle. According to Rosa Huertas González, Director of the Innovation, Economic Development, Employment and Commerce Area of the City of Valladolid, the city’s objective is to help citizens “achieve greater levels of involvement in the management of their own waste, starting by ensuring that less waste is generated through a change in consumption habits and then supporting these actions of rethinking, reusing and recycling so that they are as effective as possible.”
“Understanding the individual responsibility we have to achieve the goal of zero waste is vital to have the opportunity to achieve it. And it is done with investment, communicating, showing the reality of what it is and what it can be. Generating awareness of the reality and assuming commitments all as administration and citizens,” she adds.
The city is currently planning the construction of a new waste treatment plant, “that will improve the treatment of solid waste throughout the province of Valladolid, obtaining better recovery rates, both of organic matter and of packaging and household goods,” notes González.
The circular economy is part of the answer
For over 20 years, the city of Valladolid has been trying to improve its organic matter management via a treatment plant that produces organic composting used for agriculture and working on waste collection in the city. Looking ahead, the city plans to expand popular participation and also invest in new circular economy models.
“We understand the circular economy to be a new production model based on improving the use of raw materials and minimising the amount of waste,” explains González, adding that “it is necessary to work with companies and industries to seek a greater industrial symbiosis that leads to higher levels of collaboration and mutual knowledge between sectors.”
And, on the other tip of the process, the circular economy, the principle is “generating zero waste because it places one of the most important focuses on the redesign and eco-design of objects, products and services,” through “solutions and alternatives along the entire chain, from production, marketing and waste management, but it is undoubtedly much more profitable in the long run to make efforts at the source, starting with the design of the products themselves.”
“In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained as long as possible”
– Gabriela Zuca, Councillor at the Romanian city of Tulcea
Tulcea investing in the circular economy
Gabriela Zuca, Councillor of Tulcea, in Romania, further explains that “in a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained as long as possible. Waste and resources are reused and continue to create value. Sustainable growth means using resources in a smart and sustainable way.”
“Recycling municipal waste, separate collecting waste lead to reducing the quantity of waste to landfills and more efficient waste management,” Zuca added.
The challenges, she notes, are clear: “Waste prevention through changes in design, production and consumption, recovery of resources in a safe and sustainable way, educating the population in the selective collection of waste, implementation principle you pay as much as you throw.”
Póvoa de Varzim faces challenges, but won’t give up
In northern Portugal, Póvoa de Varzim is yet another city looking for better waste management practices and towards the circular economy as the path for improving city life and protecting biodiversity, even though the increasing commitment of the community is a challenge to face.
Nevertheless, the city “has implemented a set of actions that favour selective waste collection with a view to forwarding it for recycling. In this sense, it has established collection circuits for each of the specific waste flows. There are circuits for the domestic sector and for the non-domestic sector,” explains Sílvia Gomes da Costa, Councillor for the Environment and Urban Intelligence of Póvoa de Varzim.
“The success of our strategy will depend on how citizens participate in each of the projects they are invited to join”
– Silvia Gomes da Costa, Councillor for the Environment and Urban Intelligence of Póvoa de Varzim
In order to promote greater participation of the population in the waste separation, taking into account its valorisation, Costa notes that “we intend to continue to invest in raising awareness among the population in order to promote the adoption of behaviours in line with the hierarchy of waste management principles, from the outset, ensuring that there is a focus on waste production prevention.”
Step by Step, Arezzo moves forward
The city of Arezzo has a controlling share (86%) in AISA Impianti, an investee company, which has managed a waste to energy plant and a compost plant for organic waste since the 1990s. Now a project has been approved and financed for the production of biogas from organic materials.
The project aims to give self-sufficiency on waste treatment not only to the city of Arezzo but to the entire province, at the same time maximising the recovery of matter and energy (when the first is not possible) from waste.
According to Alessandro Forzoni, Director of Arezzo’s Environmental Protection Office, the city just recently discovered the opportunity and the strong need to act in terms of improving waste collection and caring about the environment. “We are a beautiful province, but we never cared much about the environment, because we were poor farmers until 40 years ago and then we enjoyed a very fast economic growth due to the gold industry and our attention was focused on our wealth.”
“From day to night, costs rose and we decided to think of and create a new model in 2017 to improve our waste collection”
– Alessandro Forzoni, Director of Arezzo’s Environmental Protection Office
Then in 2006-2008, he says, came an economic crisis, “our first economic engine didn’t stop, but had a strong ‘redefinition’, so having discovered a richness so fast made us big consumers – we have one of the highest car ratios per person in Italy.”
A legal change in the region forced things to change, forcing several municipalities join together as one, to deal with waste collection and management.
“From day to night, costs rose and we decided to think of and create a new model in 2017 to improve our waste collection. Introducing door-to-door collection in parts of the city, we pushed for a better collection of waste in hospitality and we talked to business owners to understand their needs and tailored our collection,” explained Forzoni.
The city is also substituting their old system of collection with old containers for unsorted waste for a new one with selective collection. The city expects to finish the process of substituting all containers by 2022 and they now have an app for iOS and Android, Arezzo Clean, “where you can get all info on collection services and you can also look for when there’s the collection service in different parts of the cities and info on what goes in which bin.”
Green City Accord’s peer-learning visit
All these cities are signatories of the Green City Accord (GCA), which commits cities to step up their efforts in environmental management and to become cleaner and to foster exchanges between GCA signatories and ultimately increase signatories’ capacity and knowledge to tackle environmental challenges.
They joined an online peer-learning visit hosted by the city of Valladolid, from 18-20 October, which focused on the circular economy and waste management.
As part of the Green City Accord peer-learning programme, this visit was the first one of a series of five opened to GCA signatories and which aimed to foster exchanges between GCA signatory cities, to ultimately increase local authorities’ capacity and knowledge to tackle environmental challenges and to develop integrated and ambitious actions to achieve their GCA commitments.
Additionally, this visit offered the opportunity to participants to provide and receive constructive feedback on these issues, to share inspiring practices, and collectively think of solutions and innovations to address common challenges. And the experience was positive for the participating cities.
“It was a privileged moment of sharing and exchange of experiences where it was possible to share our experience and, at the same time, get to know good examples of other cities and that we can equate and adjust to our reality, said Sílvia Gomes da Costa.
“We realized that Póvoa de Varzim city is on the right path but that there are many opportunities to integrate the circular economy concepts to the different sectors of its community, extending them beyond waste management and local government reality, creating conditions for companies and new investors to adapt their business concept to the circular economy principles,” Costa added.
Tulcea’s representative, Gabriela Zuca, noted that “it was an interesting experience, we saw what are the problems facing other cities, their projects and achievements. The peer-learning visit was a source of inspiration for us.”
Alessandro Forzoni, from Arezzo, added, “We think too much about ourselves, we must work with actors that are not public, but also the private sector, find synergy with associations, NGOs, the private sector, etc.”
Rosa Huerta González, from the host-city Valladolid, said that “some of the lessons we learned were the need to continue investing in public awareness campaigns to increase citizen input and improve the quality of waste separation at source.”
“We also learned that the circular economy has a broader concept than merely waste management and that there are experiences that have already been carried out in several cities with excellent results, always adapting to the local reality. And we were aware that all European cities have a challenge in the management of bio-waste, in order to achieve the recovery targets set by the European Union.”
“Two things have impacted me,” finally concluded Forzoni. “First, the path is quite similar among different cities and it made me think that we are very attentive to transform cities and less to tell citizens about what we do and that’s important because if you do something and people don’t know about it, you can’t convince them to join and we must be better in telling what we do.”