An aerial view of water flowing through a dam.

What the Japanese model for circular economy teaches us about building them at scale

The Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere, introduced by the Government of Japan, provides a framework for cities and regions to plan out green, circular economies that work as efficiently as possible.

The concept of the circular economy is key for the future of sustainable development. Its core premise is to decouple economic activity from the extraction of resources and the production of greenhouse gases. This is made possible through a concerted effort to minimize waste, incentivize localize production and consumption patterns and recycle resources.

Circular development is a clear win for communities that want to reduce their environmental impact, and ICLEI is committed to cultivating circular development as one of its five pathways aimed at achieving sustainable urban development through systemic change. Nevertheless, developing an effective circular economy requires much more than deciding to recycle waste. It requires an understanding of scale and a commitment to efficiency at every logistical step of the waste-reduction process.

Maximizing the efficiency of resource distribution and minimizing the extraction of new resources requires that these kinds of challenges be addressed. But how?


Achieving a circular economy requires consideration of scale, social issues and the natural world.

The Japanese R-CES

The Japanese government, after developing its 5th Basic Environmental Plan, has embraced the concept of the R-CES, or “regional and circular ecological sphere.” The R-CES is a conceptual way of organizing communities and space so that both material and carbon are circulated at a scale that minimizes waste depending on the industry or resource in question. For durable goods like steel, circulation should occur at a large radius, allowing a recycling plant to source enough steel from across a region to function at optimal efficiency. That radius is smaller for degradable goods, however, and even smaller for things that spoil quickly, like food waste. By understanding and planning around these ideal scales, communities can optimize the process of material and carbon circulation to minimize emissions and improve the local economy. The boundaries they draw to make that happen ultimately defines their local R-CES.

Consider the way much of the world exports used plastic to China and other markets in south and east Asia. Although the plastic is saved from the landfill, the logistical effort of shipping the plastic still produces plenty of emissions. It might be less damaging to the environment than putting the plastic in a landfill, but if the recycling of plastics could occur more locally, that would be even better.

The philosophy of the R-CES also considers environmental and social issues to be inseparably connected to these efficiencies. That means a well-developed R-CES should take into account issues such as access to schooling, commute times, and the preservation of natural resources in order to create a framework that supports the ideal case of a fully circular economy.

According to a guide on R-CES published by the Japanese government and Prof. Kazuhiko Takeuchi, one of the leading thinkers behind the R-CES, the goal of applying R-CES thinking is to create a “self-reliant and decentralized society” that supports a low-carbon economy, human-scale developments and the conservation of nature. Decentralization might sound like an unusual objective for regional planning — sustainability experts usually focus on the world’s ever-growing cities — but Japanese leaders consider decentralization to be important to building resilience in the face of natural disasters. It is also being considered as an answer to Japan’s declining birth rates, as population shrinkage can lead to underutilization of local resources.

Making this a reality will require a serious reconfiguration of the way economies, infrastructure, and communities are planned. For one thing, it will require both the specialization of economic activities and the distribution of consumption in an optimal fashion. For this reason, Japanese cities are being encouraged to focus on enhancing their unique characteristics, allowing them to specialize while taking advantage of neighboring activities that might circulate material more optimally. Similarly, the Japanese government hopes to distribute and decentralize power production to optimize the use of renewable energy, and has already mapped the renewable energy potential of different areas throughout the country.


Centralization produces efficiency — to a point. R-CES is about finding the places where supply and demand are equitable enough to build an ideal circular economy.


The concept of the R-CES has already been deployed in some of Japan’s most ambitious eco-friendly cities. Nagano Prefecture, one of the country’s “SDG Future Cities,” has used the concept of the R-CES to make progress on its target of using 100% renewable energy in the reason. Based on this success, Japanese representatives have been sharing their findings at conferences worldwide, and presented their work alongside ICLEI at the Japan Pavillion at COP24.

Because circular development is a key ICLEI pathway towards urban sustainability, it is exciting to see new frameworks emerge for its implementation. Although there is still much research and planning to be done, the R-CES offers some important ideas about optimal scale and reinforces the need to build economies on healthy social and ecological systems. If these ideas are applied early in the deployment of a circular regional plan, then communities will be able to enjoy not only the benefits of an environmentally-friendly and circular economy, but one which scales organically and efficiently over time.