These Cities Advancing a Circular Economy: Part Two

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working with cities around the world to help them advance a circular economy within their jurisdictions. Sarah O'Carroll, Cities Lead: Institutions, Governments & Cities at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, discusses that work, highlighting what's transpiring in cities from London to New York.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

June 15, 2022

7 Min Read
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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working with cities around the world to help them advance a circular economy within their jurisdictions. Sarah O'Carroll, Cities Lead: Institutions, Governments & Cities at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, discusses that work, highlighting what's transpiring in cities from London to New York. She explains why she thinks the world cannot afford to not invest in the transition to a circular model. And she sheds light on what’s key to  developing universal strategies that can be applied in any part of the world. 

Waste360: What is The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Cities Program, and how does it support cities in advancing a circular economy model?

O’Carroll: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Cities Program is housed in EMF's Institutions, Governments, and Cities unit. Through this program we work very closely with 15 cities in Europe, North America, and Latin America who are part of our network.  

We engage with these cities -- from London to New York City to São Paulo -- on a one-on-one basis, providing advisory support and discussing their priorities and their work in progress to accelerate their circular economy agenda.  

Specifically, we help city governments to develop ambitious policies, including strategies and roadmaps. We develop content for city governments to promote and drive the circular economy. And we help mobilize and convene key urban decision makers toward action and demonstration projects.

Waste360: From where do you pull knowledge and experience to support these cities in transitioning?

O’Carroll: We engage with about 50 cities all around the world that are leaders in advancing a circular economy. And we’re in touch with various circular economy policy organizations, think tanks, international institutions, and city network organizations. These include ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), an international non-governmental organization that provides local governments with technical assistance around their sustainability goals; and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization that does economic-related policy work –to name but a few.

When we meet with and advise each of the 15 cities, we bring that wealth of knowledge gleaned from the work of those 50 cities and roughly 20 organizations and institutions. By staying in touch with other experts deeply involved in this space we are able to bring the latest thinking and thought leadership.

We can only work one-on-one with a limited number of cities in order to focus our resources, but it’s important to have this broad community of cities around the world because our content needs to be globally relevant. Some of what is effective in London may not work in New York City. What is successful in New York City may not work in São Paulo. But our cities are still being inspired by and learning from one another. By adapting approaches to a local context, there is opportunity for developing more universal strategies that can be applied in any part of the world. 

Waste360: What are the economic and environmental benefits of a circular economy?  

O’Carroll: Based on the Foundation’s research and work, we believe that a circular economy supports better growth that benefits society, businesses, and the environment. 

Circular economy strategies can reduce investment risks by decoupling growth from resource consumption and material use by redefining how we make and use goods. Shifting to a circular economy can also reduce exposure to supply chain disruptions, making supply chains more resilient and reducing exposure to resource price volatility. Ultimately, economic benefits are more secure.  

Details that further explain and support these benefits are explored in a paper that the Foundation wrote last year called “The circular economy as a de-risking strategy and driver of superior risk-adjusted return.”

Another Foundation publication called “Growth within: a circular economy vision for a competitive Europe” is based on quantitative modeling that shows the circular economy could generate up to 1.2 trillion euros (1.2 trillion USD) in economic benefits. 

On the environment, the Foundation has published two reports in the last few years. The first is “Completing the picture: How the circular economy tackles climate change,” which focuses on how the circular economy can contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Our report shows that switching to renewable energy will only lead to a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses. The remaining 45 percent of emissions come directly from the way we make and use products and how we produce food and manage land. Eliminating waste across value chains and in the design of products offers opportunities for avoiding GHG emissions. Keeping products and components in use at their highest value means their embodied energy is preserved for longer, and the need for new production and end-of-life treatment–and the GHG emissions they entail–is reduced.

“Completing the picture” illustrates how applying the circular economy can remove nearly half of the remaining 45 percent of greenhouse gasses through implementing a circular economy. That’s equivalent to removing all of the current emissions from transportation worldwide.

A paper we released in 2021, highlights the potential role of the circular economy in stopping or reversing biodiversity loss. It examines four sectors: food, built environment, fashion, and plastics.

Waste360: How are cities uniquely positioned to support circular economy models?

O’Carroll: Cities have a high concentration of resources, capital, data, and talent spread over a relatively small geographic area. They are centers for innovation and engines of economic growth. Because of this concentration, they are also uniquely positioned to support the circular economy transition. 

For example, city governments can support research development and innovation programs, and business transformation programs, firsthand. 

And we’re increasingly seeing the importance of communities and neighborhoods in the circular economy transition. The city of Cleveland is a good example. From its community ambassadors and community grants work, to supporting entrepreneurs and small business, its training workshops on repair, and inclusion of the community in the development of its roadmap. 

Waste360: What innovative work is happening in which cities around the world? 

O'Carroll: There is a lot of innovative work occurring in many cities around the globe. To name a few: 

There is Charlotte Innovation Barn, which is supported by the City of Charlotte’s circular economy program. The Innovation Barn is a combination of entrepreneurial businesses, zero-waste initiatives, and a space to convene groups in order to learn more about and implement circular projects.  

Arizona State University has an incubator called Resource Innovations and Solutions Network (RISN) that's supported by the City of Phoenix, which assists entrepreneurs in the early stages of waste-to-product innovation with the goal of accelerating the transition to a circular economy in the Phoenix area. 

In London, the organization ReLondon has a really successful business transformation program, which empowers SMEs to translate circular principles into business opportunities.

And in Scotland, Circular Glasgow, an initiative of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, that is supported by Zero Waste Scotland and Glasgow City Council also has very successful business innovation transformation programs, which are creating a circular economy in the city through innovation, design thinking, and circular business models.

City governments and organizations created or supported these programs specifically to provide technical and financial support to enable innovators to take advantage of circular economy opportunities, and to replicate and scale.

Waste360: How can the transition to a circular economy be made affordable?

O'Carroll: We can’t afford to not transition. What we know, which is well documented, is that our current take, make, waste economy, our linear economy, is not providing economic, environmental, or social benefits. 

In fact, this linear model is becoming riskier over time. We know that 90 percent of biodiversity loss can be attributed to a linear economy, threatening our food system. We know, as I mentioned earlier, that 45 percent of greenhouse gasses can’t be addressed by renewable energy and energy efficiency.

We know that 75 percent of cities around the world are already affected by climate change. They experience flooding, droughts, and excessive heat, tied to air pollution and water system pollution, putting both the environment and human health at risk. The greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are a product of our 'take-make-waste' extractive economy, which relies on fossil fuels and does not manage resources for the long-term.

Then there are the potential economic ramifications I referenced earlier such as supply chain volatility, which puts jobs at risk.

There are of course costs associated with transitioning to a circular economy. To make that transition more affordable for city governments, my advice would be to embed a circular economy agenda into existing agendas, policy priorities, and programs.

We find that when cities start to map their circular economy activities there’s already a lot going on. So rather than make it something new - a new activity to deliver against--they can build on what they are already doing. It's already generating benefits. So, embed that work into existing programs that are already funded and resourced.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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