Rethink, reuse and repair

Lisa and Oskar are actively changing their lifestyles to benefit the planet. “We have a climate budget and it will explode if we don’t choose electric,” says Oskar, explaining the couple’s choice to opt for sharing e-vehicles when taking long trips. Aside from a climate budget, Lisa says that she is trying not to buy any new clothes all year, and the couple are working towards a goal of reducing their carbon dioxide emissions to below two tonnes per year.
As residents in the area around Gothenburg, they’re also beneficiaries of the city’s ‘smart map’ – a digital map based on the participation of local inhabitants and a public partnership. Developed in 2016, it promotes a sustainable lifestyle by encouraging citizens to find alternatives to consumption, such as sharing or lending. Through several public ‘map jam events’ local initiatives helped to give shape to the project, which quickly showed around 100 organisations. It is a continuously evolving map, to which any citizen or organisation can propose new initiatives.
As Tove Lund, a planning manager for the city of Gothenburg explains, “like all European cities we have a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in general, but what is unique to Gothenburg is wanting to impact consumption-based emissions by influencing and inspiring citizens to think about how they consume and live their lives.”

From linear to circular

The circular economy, which encourages the reuse, repair and redesign, rather than disposal of materials, offers Europe the possibility of significantly reducing carbon emissions, while providing new and sustainable competitive advantages. It is set to become “the number one priority” of the European Green Deal, to be launched by the European Commission’s Frans Timmermans at the beginning of his next mandate.
According to climate scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change, it is only wholesale behaviour shift that will limit global warming to 1.5° by 2050. One of the “key impediments” they have identified to achieving this is human population growth.
In an era of urbanisation, this puts city administrations in a prime position to raise awareness of sustainable consumption and to stimulate new resource efficient business models. Amsterdam, for example is already a frontrunner in circularity, and was the first city to commission in-depth research into the potential of the circular economy. This led to the creation of Amsterdam’s integrated strategy and the dedicated programme, ‘learning by doing,’ which aims to show that circularity is profitable.
Over 70 projects have since blossomed in the city, such as ‘Fairphone’, which was initially started as an awareness campaign raising sustainability topics in the electronics industry. However, as Miguel Ballester Salva, resource efficiency manager for the project shares, “soon we realised that we can do much more if we become part of the economic system, by becoming a company.” Today Fairphone is a social enterprise making a modular repairable smart phone that extends the lifecycle of the product.
And many cities have been following suit, finding their own way to take part in the circular economy, often by working with a variety of different partners.
Projects like this, often based at the local level may change the value we place on product lifecycles, with implications for jobs and skills: for example, work streams related to product design, repair, reuse and recycling, which are all labour intensive, could become more prominent.
“We have to rethink our relationship with stuff because it matters: we only have one planet and we can’t recycle it,” says Cat Fletcher, a ‘reuse manager’ who was hired by Brighton & Hove City Council to work on a modernisation programme that changed the way the council thinks about its offices, assets and approach to work.
The King’s House project, which involved emptying the largest office block in the city of 1,000 staff along with all their furniture and equipment, was used to benefit local residents, organisations and community groups. In total 150 tonnes of materials were reused, which is equal to £150,000 of economic value re-entering the local community.

Plastic cities

Of course, there are many facets of the circular economy and its full implementation is still a long way off. The European Commission’s current action plan, produced in 2015, included bans on some single-use plastics and recycling targets for packaging, which has arguably set the standard for other levels of government.
As Olivier De-Clercq, a policy officer in the European Commission explains “European cities have a key role to play by putting in place plastic waste prevention actions, implementing efficient separate collection for plastic waste or organising litter prevention and clean-up on their territory.”
This is a message that EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities, has taken on board. In October, the network, together with the city of Oslo, launched a Plastics Declaration committing cities to develop a strategy and set time bound targets to significantly reduce plastic pollution in their city by 2021.
“Plastic pollution is a global problem,” says Lan Marie Berg, Vice Mayor for Environment and Transport, City of Oslo. “There is a strong need for policies that will reduce consumption of plastic products, as well as increase demand for more environmentally friendly plastic products. As large single purchasers, cities can play a leading role by purchasing sustainable alternatives when available, or buying plastic products based on recyclable raw materials, stimulating the market for environment friendly plastic products.”
Indeed, as a pioneering city in this area, Oslo already plans to phase-out all unnecessary and single use plastics used by the city’s municipal bodies by the end of this year – as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce plastic pollution.
And so far 20 other European cities have agreed to similar measures. Milan’s project, ‘Milano Plastic Free’, has, for example led to over 200 bars, restaurants and shops committed to take different measures to reduce the use of disposable plastics, such as replacing disposable plastic glasses, plates and cutlery with biodegradable alternatives, and to separate the waste thanks to the collaboration of customers.
In Copenhagen meanwhile, where around half of the plastic waste comes from food packaging, the focus is on recycling over the entire product lifecycle.

Time to speed up

So, what are the next steps in the roll out of circular economy, most especially as the European Commission says it is ready with its second circular economy action plan? EUROCITIES is calling on the European Commission to speed up action on the circular economy as one of 12 actions to take in its first 100 days. In particular, the network suggests that further EU-level actions such as driving investment in jobs and skills for a circular-fit workforce, or setting reuse targets, are still needed to set the right conditions at local level for a fast transition.
The Urban Agenda partnership on Circular Economy, which pools together experts from across layers and levels of government, has developed a set of common indicators to help benchmark city progress on circularity and is asking the European Commission to set up a pilot project, with cities on board, to make these indicators accessible and actionable for other cities.
Further action to ensure products are designed with reuse and recycling in mind will come – but until then, Lisa and Oskar, and perhaps yourself, are role models for the planet.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer