Circular cities

Reducing, reusing and repairing to eliminate waste

Jacqui Griffiths
21 June 2017

4 min read

Cities consume 75% of the world’s natural resources and produce 50% of its waste, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit organization that promotes the reduction, reuse or recycling of everything. As urban populations grow and the challenges of supply and removal get bigger, policymakers, educators and businesses are working toward a “circular economy,” which seeks to minimize consumption and maximize reuse of products, components and materials.

Residents of London do not need to buy household electrical items, gardening tools or camping equipment. Instead, they can borrow these and other items from the Library of Things for a small fee. The library is just one example of how the city is transitioning to the circular economy, a commitment to reducing what a city consumes and what it discards that also creates jobs in reuse, repair, remanufacturing and materials innovation.

“City Hall and the London Waste and Recycling Board are working together on a number of initiatives in this area,” said Shirley Rodrigues, deputy mayor for Environment and Energy in London. “These include developing a ‘route map’ for the transition to the circular economy, an investment program to support small and medium enterprises in this sector, and embedding principles of the circular economy in procurement across the Greater London Authority group.”

As urban populations grow, the pressure cities put on resources intensifies. But this also makes cities the ideal places to find solutions that generate significant benefits.

For example, Rodrigues said London’s circular economy activities could bring 12,000 new jobs by 2030 and £7 billion (US$9.06 billion or €8.3 billion) in annual investment by 2036, plus £5 billion (US$6.47 billion or €5.93 billion) saved by avoiding waste infrastructure costs from 2016 to 2050. By reducing waste, the initiative is also expected to free up land previously needed for waste management for other uses.


London’s initiatives are just one example of a movement that is catching fire worldwide. “Cities face great challenges and opportunities in three key domains: waste, mobility and the built environment,” said Antonia Gawel, who leads circular economy and environmental initiatives at the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Switzerland-based international organization for public-private cooperation on global, regional and industrial agendas. “They can implement various actions that generate direct or indirect economic benefits in each area.”

Examples, Gawel said, include using biorefineries to convert food waste into fuel, repurposing building materials, providing products as a service and putting new business models in place for how buildings and infrastructure should be owned, used and occupied.

Technologies that include the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) help to enable the circular economy.

In San Francisco, for example, solar-powered, sensor-enabled trash cans report data via the IoT, enabling local authorities to use vehicles, fuel and infrastructure more efficiently by planning collection routes based on trash levels.



In Helsinki, a recently launched “mobility as a service” (MaaS) app enables users to plan and book journeys across public and private transport, including bus, taxi and train, as well as car and bike sharing. The aim is to reduce car ownership and congestion and make better use of existing infrastructure instead of building more.

Meanwhile, Netherlands-based Philips Lighting leases intelligent lighting as a service to organizations across the world through a “pay-per-lux” model. Philips takes responsibility for the equipment, using data collected from the lights via the IoT to enable better maintenance, reconditioning and recovery, rather than disposal.

“Digital transformation is providing the tools we need to make it easy for people to transition to a circular economy,” Gawel said. “Suddenly, we have tools and approaches to managing the flow of people in cities, for example by taking advantage of the idle capacity of cars that spend most of their time parked on city streets. City authorities can digitally track inventories and assets so they know when to maintain or replace components. Increasingly, we don’t have to build more infrastructure; we can use the infrastructure we have more effectively.”


Despite the progress being made, the circular economy has a long way to go before it becomes a reality.
“Education on the field [of circular economies] is in woeful short supply, and there is a need to develop the skills and knowledge of educators so they can instruct others in how a circular economy works,” said David Peck, senior research fellow and professor specializing in critical materials and circular design at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.

“Companies will also need to work more closely with policymakers, regulators and government and seek mutual benefits,” Peck said. “They will have to embrace unusual business models in partnership with organizations they may never have expected to work with. And policymakers will need to play a pivotal role in deciding on the choices we have to make. For example, choices in public sector procurement can provide a real boost.”

To make the circular economy work, Peck said, educators need to focus their efforts as much on people in companies as they do on individuals. TU Delft is working to drive collaboration with partners in the private and public sectors, including partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – pioneers in promoting the economic advantages of the circular economy – to develop teaching and research programs.

TU Delft also works with industrial partners through the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, which helps science, education, government, business and societal organizations create solutions for the complex consumption and disposal challenges that cities face. Partnering with companies to focus on the circular city also is a key focus area of TU Delft’s work with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology Raw Materials consortium and the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability.

“We are seeing the beginnings of the transition to a circular economy in cities, with circular cities being listed in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation network and across the European Union in EU-funded projects,” Peck said. “Circular can get done at a city level, making cities an excellent place to start.”

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