Circular Cities: Learning from Glasgow

The Circular economy is an economic model which designs out waste and pollution, keeps materials in use and regenerates natural systems, envisioning every product as being created with the intent of extending its lifespan and adding value wherever possible through this process. Why such a model can constitute a “win-win opportunity”? According to EPA Director General Laura Burke “inefficient consumption and missed opportunities for reuse & recycling leads to more waste and higher greenhouse gas emissions” so a circular economy may constitute an innovative solution to disrupt traditional business models while creating new enterprise opportunities.

The Industrial Revolution laid the foundation for how the economy of today operates. Since 1684, after Thomas Savory’s steam engine discovery kick-started the industrial revolution, goods were mass produced, raw materials and energy were seemingly infinite and ever-available. Until the 17th and 18th centuries, growth was slow, constant and homogeneous both within and between countries, inasmuch as GDP per capita and population size which remained constant too. The first Industrial revolution broke this idyllic stable stationary state. We detect steady rise in GDP and the first diverging growth paths between countries, given by the increase of the stock of production factors. The consumeristic mantra has affected considerably the way we use resources: we take them from the ground to make products, we use them, and then we no longer want them, so we throw them away, underestimating their underutilized potential. This triadic sequence of “take-make-waste” is the blueprint of our spoiled linear economy; it is the direct product of erroneous short-term consumeristic attitudes. Howbeit, if we accept that the natural world’s cyclical model works, we can change our way of thinking and of using resources.

A future oriented mindset would rather try to answer different kinds of questions, which can consequently contribute to the redefinition and redesigning of products themselves. Likewise, what if the goods of today became the resources of tomorrow?

Instead of embedding and rooting in the immediate present the life span of a good or service, a circular economy approach can help us to rethink the operating system itself, to rethink a new concept of ownership, where goods are designed to be disassembled and reused. The Ellen Mc Arthur foundation – which since 2010 aims at accelerating the transition towards a circular economy – attempted to identify three main principles for the redefinition of a new system based on a cyclical (or circular) model. [1] First and foremost, to design out waste and pollution; the latter are de facto direct consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where around 80% of environmental impacts are determined. If we begin to consider waste as a design flaw which potentially harnesses new materials and technologies, we can ensure that waste and pollution are not created in the first place.

Secondly, to keep products and materials in use. Or better, to use things rather than using them up. As we previously mentioned, challenging the composition of goods a priori, by designing them for the sake of being reused, repaired and remanufactured, prevents harsher corrective measures a posteriori.

And finally, the idea of regenerating natural systems. We were underlining formerly how in nature nothing is waste; everything is cyclical and is food for something else. Moreover, this new approach counts conspicuous estimated benefits: around $700 millions per year of material cost-savings in the fast moving consumer goods industry; 48% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030; $550 billion reduction in health care costs associated with the food sector;  €3000 increase in disposable income per annum for EU households and many more spillover effects around the globe. Another backlash commenced by the Industrial Revolution was the internal migration wave, from the rural to the urban areas. Between 1900 and 2015, the urbanized population increased from 14% to 54% and is forecasted to rise to 66% by 2050; so three quarters of us will live in cities. As a natural consequence, urban centers are grappling with the effects of our current take-make-waste detrimental linear economy.

Having internalized this mode of action, cities consume over 75% of natural resources, produce over 50% of global waste and emit between 60-80% of greenhouse gases. A circular economy becomes a solution inasmuch as it provides a way to ensure a long-term growth and prosperity in the urban context. At the moment, we can count an increasing number of cities which are approaching the circular economy model. Glasgow for example, has instituted a circular economy investment fund; both Brussels, Copenhagen, London, Amsterdam and Paris are taking various initiatives, part of a larger frame which is the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation established in 2010.

Moving outside Europe, we count Bilbao’s action plan, India’s Strategy paper on Resource efficiency, China’s Circular Economy Promotion Law and five-year plans and other initiative taken together with Japan and South Korea. Keeping in mind what we formerly said, namely that the circular economy is able to create new enterprise and business opportunities, Circular Glasgow is a peculiar initiative of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and is delivered in partnership with Zero Waste Scotland. [2] The aim of this movement is to inspire businesses of all sizes to innovate and become future-proof by adopting circular strategies. Practical initiatives have been implemented in order to connect companies across cities, increase competitive advantages and realize financial savings (for instance the “bread to beer” initiative which can be considered archetypal in our case). On a regional scale, focus areas vary from city to city, but broadly align with Scotland’s Circular Economy Strategy 2016 ‘Making Things Last’ which highlights food and drink, bioeconomy, energy infrastructure, and manufacturing as initial centres of interest.

Poster of the Circular Glagow initiative

Cities need to engage in a systematic transition from the linear paradigm of production and consumption to a circular one. We have shown that innovations have already begun in some cities across the world, particularly in sectors like healthcare, waste management and energy. Obviously, this transition ought to be incentivized collectively, requiring collaborative efforts across the value chain, involving individuals, private sector, government and civil society actors. Quite hazardously, it seems as if the decision stage is stuck in a matrix, like in the case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Defecting or not defecting?

Like in a game theoretical framework, individual behaviors have repercussions both at the individual and at the collective level. The defective outcome of decision-making is attributable to asymmetry of information which constitute a pervasive hindrance in economic theory. An intuitive (and heuristic) argument is that we live in an economic environment characterized by imperfect altruism, which guides utility maximization problems more in general and particularly decisions taken at the household level.

A circular economy oughts to unleash a transition to a more relational stance and future oriented goals, ditching linearity with its rigorous and circumscribed starting and ending points, striving instead towards a more fluid and cyclical model, where end and start become relative nomenclatures, blending together and mystifying themselves.

[1] The mentioned principles have been defined and gauged by the Ellen Mc Arthur foundation; more information
available at : https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy

[2] More detailed information are available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/Glasgow_- Case-Study_Mar19.pdf