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Moving Beyond “Take, Make, Waste”: Developing Cities Show the Possibilities of the Circular Economy

By 2050, the global population is expected to soar beyond 9 billion people, 66 percent of whom may live in cities. Accompanying this stunning pace of urbanization will be a complex web of challenges related to consumption, pollution, and water and energy stresses.

Recently, the concept of a circular economy has gained traction as a solution that would ameliorate the burden on natural resources while still encouraging economic growth. The concept is simple: minimize the disposal of waste and the need for raw materials by keeping existing materials and assets in the production cycle. This alternative economic system transforms our current linear economy, which “takes, makes and wastes” into one that reuses, recycles and repairs.

Though China embraced the circular economy from the mid-2000s, conversations about the circular economy are now taking place in many countries around the world, in particular developed countries. Large corporations, foundations and local governments have gotten behind the CE as the new way forward. But given that most of urban growth will take place in less developed countries, their rapidly urbanizing cities need to be included, and even prioritized.

Circular Solutions in Developing Countries

People in developing country cities use “circular economy” principles every day—picking through waste, using less and repairing more. As Deputy Director for the UN Environment Programme, Ibrahim Thiaw, noted, “repairing is part of the DNA of developing countries.”

These practices are, by and large, driven by poverty: necessity is the mother of invention. But as these countries develop, the challenge will be to find ways to deploy systematically circular solutions that drive economic, environmental and social value.  Here are three examples of CE in practice.

<p>The sludge-to-energy plant in Xiangyang, China. Photo by Xiaotian Fu/WRI</p>

The sludge-to-energy plant in Xiangyang, China. Photo by Xiaotian Fu/WRI

  • In Xiangyang, China, government and business leaders came together to implement a sludge-to-energy program. Through this public-private partnership, the city built a biorefinery on the site of an existing wastewater treatment facility. The refinery takes sludge from the wastewater treatment process and combines it with local food waste to produce biochar and compressed natural gas. The project is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95-98 percent and financially breaking even by including sales of biochar and natural gas.

  • The Integrated Waste Exchange in Cape Town, South Africa is a free online system that connects individuals, schools and businesses that wish to exchange their waste or excess materials. Developed by the city, this peer-to-peer exchange platform facilitates a circular flow of materials like batteries, textiles, metals and other materials while saving users money, conserving energy and reducing pressure on already constrained landfills.

  • In Kolkata, India, several stakeholders came together to launch a bus service that runs entirely on renewable biogas. The firm that produces the biogas (from animal and plant waste) worked with the government to place biogas pumps around the city and partnered with Ashok Leyland, a major vehicle manufacturing company, to produce the buses. Riding the bus isn’t just sustainable, it’s cost-effective: because biogas is significantly less expensive than other fuels, bus fares will begin at just Re 1 (less than $0.02), a twelfth the cost of the next-cheapest bus.

These case studies illustrate three core principles often associated with successful CE programs:

  1. Collaborate outside your comfort zone. The circular economy often begets solutions that are cross-sector by nature. Implementing these solutions will require business models that are prepared to consider and involve stakeholders from various sectors throughout a supply chain.

  2. Work at the appropriate scale. In the example of an Integrated Waste Exchange, success at the city level is only possible through the development of an effective household program. Projects could be aimed at businesses, households or public services. Ultimately, the circular economy will transform each of these areas.

  3. Establish priority sectors. Inadequate waste management, energy access and food are persistent problems in developing country cities, making these sectors logical entry points to begin implementing a circular model.

Making Habits into Systems

While these instances of circular projects are encouraging, they remain largely isolated and disjointed. For developing cities to fully participate in the circular economy, they must be able to extend informal repair networks and isolated projects to a more intentional approach, systematized through policies.

The first step will be recognizing the circular economy as an opportunity that could offer a better path for development. Once incentives are established, cities should plan to enact the three lessons above – establish priority sectors, choose the right scale and collaborate. City governments in both developed and developing countries play a significant role in facilitating projects, and the circular economy is no exception.

Lastly, the emerging global network of circular economy experts should expand its horizons to include more work among developing-country cities. Securing funding for pilot projects will be crucial, as it was in the sludge-to-energy example. With this support network in place, developing cities can increase the pace at which they are able to pilot projects and scale them to a systems-level circular economy.

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