What goes around comes around

Two million people move through Prague on a daily basis. That’s about 20% of the population of Czechia where it accounts for some 25% of the GDP. Prague is also where 50% of the country’s companies are registered or based.

In Czechia, what Prague does matters. So, its commitment to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by the end of the decade is significant. It’s a great example of why cities matter, and how cities can lead the way in the transition to a sustainable way of life.

“We want Prague to be a great place to live in the decades to come, for people, businesses, and the environment,” says Petr Hlubuček, Vice Mayor of Prague for the environment. “That’s why we have a pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Our climate plan proposes ways to change the city’s approach in four key areas,” he adds.

To get there, the city has already started on several large-scale projects – for instance planting one million trees and installing 30,000 solar panels on the roofs of both public and private buildings.

We have a pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050
— Petr Hlubuček, Vice Mayor of Prague for the environment

There are many challenges, and a few unexpected setbacks: Prague has long been one of the most visited cities in Europe. Famed for its gothic architecture, good beer and strong cultural scene, the ‘city of a thousand spires’ has faced dwindling revenues over the last two years as tourists have stayed away.

Meanwhile, as more people continue to move into the city over recent years, there is an ever present need to build new homes and undertake other construction projects, adding to the city’s carbon footprint.

Nonetheless, one of the crucial preconditions for Prague’s climate objectives is to achieve a fully circular economy.

That’s why the city initiated a ‘circle scan’ – to identify and prioritise new opportunities and create a vision for circular transformation: the city has just published a brand-new Circular Prague 2030 strategy, with responsibilities shared across the city administration.

Circle scan

One clear outcome of the Prague’s circle scan was to highlight the untapped potential of doing more with the flows of biomass through the city.

“The environmental impact of two million people’s dietary needs is massive,” exclaims Vojtech Vosecky, Chairman of the Circular Economy Steering Committee for the City of Prague. “But there is a lot we can do about it as a city,” he adds.

For example, following the scan, the city now aims to prevent food waste and separate 70% of its food waste at source by 2035.

And there are many other things the city can now focus on.

“Prague now leases 500 hectares of land to farmers who commit to circular agricultural principles. That means no harmful chemicals, respecting crop rotation or using organic fertilisers,” explains Vosecky

Previously, Vosecky admits that the city has not been very good at separating waste at source – the new target would be a huge step forward given that the current rate is around 30%.

“About two fifths of the waste we collect in the black bags, for general waste, is organic material. And that is all mainly burnt, with some of it being used for waste to energy processes,” he adds.

Separating food waste at source with our citizens is cheaper because it's more valuable as a secondary raw material which can be turned into bio gas
— Vojtech Vosecky, City of Prague

Not all materials are equally suitable for waste to energy processes, however. “Have you ever tried to burn a banana? Too much water, it doesn’t burn properly,” explains Vosecky. “Our aim now is to separate all the food waste at source and turn it into raw materials to put back into the soil where they belong, or as compressed natural gas.”

“There’s actually a business case behind it too,” adds Vosecky. “Separating food waste at source with our citizens is cheaper because it’s more valuable as a secondary raw material which can be turned into bio gas – we’re even constructing a new biogas plant to capitalise on this.

“And, there are other things that connect to that,” continues Vosecky. “We will need people, to operate these facilities, and we’re also trying to work with farmers in and around Prague to nudge them towards more sustainable practices, and we’re providing financial support for people to open their own urban farms.”

A waste-less society

Of course, the simple, true goal, of the circular economy ambition must be to waste less, a huge part of which is to reuse discarded materials.

“We have turned 5 out of 19 collection yards around the city into reuse points. People are now able to bring their unwanted and undamaged goods here, and instead of recycling or incineration, we hand it on to local charities or NGOs, and post it to our digital platform, which is accessible to all, and it’s called ‘don’t throw it away’,” says Vosecky.

These reuse points allow people to bring along often bulkier items, such as furniture or sports equipment, and to be reassured that their once loved items will find new homes.

In this vein, the city has opened up a warehouse, which will be used as a large material bank of items, to help those most in need. Prague is also working on a second-hand supermarket.

A woman stands in a room that looks like a workshop - it is infact a 'library of things'
A ‘library of things’

“It’s a space where we’ll be able to hold workshops for people to learn how to fix things, capture rainwater or install solar panels. We’ll also be able to offer cheaper rent to people who would like to open up their own library of things. The more you develop the circular economy, the more this ecosystem expands,” comments Vosecky.

“There are also countless other local, ground up initiatives, and this year we hope to collate them all into one map to show people what options are out there,” says Vosecky, who envisions the possibility for people to look up where they might swap their clothes, or find a zero-waste shop.

“Our vision is that you will be able to take a picture of your couch or chair, upload it online and we will tell you what is best to do with it, we might even come and collect it,” he adds.

More and more circular

Besides food and general waste, the city is also looking at its water cycle – by turning its wastewater treatment plant into a resource factory – and delving into the construction industry, which is actually accountable for more than 70% of the city’s waste, about 3,000,000 tonnes.

By focussing on using fewer primary materials and addressing the mindset of the industry, buildings are designed with the future reuse of their materials in mind.

“About 95% of our wastewater enters the central wastewater treatment plant, and we’re working to ensure it will produce more energy and resources than it consumes. Right now, that water is being discarded back to the river where it doesn’t add any value, but there is also a potential to generate heat and harvest more biogas from the potential biomass.

Tens of thousands of apartments and office buildings will be powered by the waste heat from the wastewater treatment plant
— Vojtech Vosecky, City of Prague

“There’s even a new neighbourhood that’s being constructed right next to the wastewater treatment plant. Tens of thousands of apartments and office buildings will be powered by the waste heat from the wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, we can use specific resources like phosphorus and nitrogen for fertiliser,” says Vosecky.

Energy community

Clearly, Prague has been doing a lot to become a champion of the circular economy, which is in large part thanks to the city leadership, which is on board with, and even driving these actions.

“A couple of months ago, we setup a Prague energy community, which is really an initiative of the Vice Mayor towards achieving this climate goal and making people energy independent. A big focus for that in the next months will be to coordinate the efforts to install solar panels, and cut down on people’s energy costs in the longer term, something we can all agree is particularly important,” Vosecky concludes.

Prague is part of the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, which strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible, with mayors and cities on board. More here.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer