Radical redesign for a circular economy: An interview with Circular Development Head Burcu Tuncer

Cities are complex systems in and of themselves, and in today’s globalized economy, cities around the world are closely intertwined through global production processes and consumption patterns. In the face of the climate and environmental crises that have pushed the earth to its limit, circularity is a critical tool to improve resource efficiency.

For more insight on how the circular economy can bring solutions to sustainable urban development, we talked with Burcu Tuncer, Head of Circular Development at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

Burcu Tuncer, Head of Circular Development at ICLEI

What is the circular economy and why do we need it?

Burcu Tuncer: Circularity means moving away from “take-make-waste” patterns of production and consumption towards a “reduce-reuse-recycle” resource preserving model. The circular economy addresses the whole life-cycle of products and services, aiming to incentivize actors all along the value chain to decrease resource use and eliminate waste. 

But this approach isn’t new, I myself have been working in the field of circular development for over 15 years. This need was a key point of discussion at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and experts have been focusing on the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources ever since. Over the last decade, there has been an increasing emphasis on circularity – the closing of material loops – as a means to put resource efficiency into practice.

Today, the circular economy model shines a light on the technical and biological loops that are currently absent in the way we design, produce, trade, use and consume products and services. It invites us to move our focus beyond small savings and technology fixes in one part of the cycle to designing radically resource efficient product value chains, waste-free products and services, eventually shifting the way we satisfy our needs and wants. 

Unfortunately, our progress towards this vision has been rather poor. 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by resource extraction and processing. The rise in resource use has been coupled with growth in waste and emissions, contributing to a series of pressure points including climate change, food insecurity, water scarcity and air pollution.

A modern lifestyle based on current patterns of consumption and production requires a large amount of natural resources, up to 25-30 tonnes of materials per capita, per annum. Few countries would be able to satisfy their material needs with domestic resources, and the current level of national material consumption has only been made possible through a record increase in international trade. 

While high-income countries maintain per capita material consumption footprints that are 60 percent higher than upper-middle-income countries and more than 13 times the level of low-income countries, the environmental impacts associated with resource extraction are felt in export countries that are meeting the demand of those high-income linear economies. Clearly, the global inequalities at play in the quantity of materials that must be mobilized globally to meet the consumption of a small handful of high-income countries are stark. 

Why is the transition to a circular economy critical at the local level?

Tuncer: The symptoms of unsustainable consumption and production patterns are felt the hardest at the local level by government officers, citizens and businesses. Single use and waste inducing design have led to a garbage crisis. Heavily littered rivers and packed landfills are plaguing local governments and communities around the world but especially in the Global South. The world keeps producing over two billion tonnes of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools and that amount of trash doesn’t come without consequences.

Air and water pollution are affecting the health of communities and these effects can be seen even more strongly in cities. And where the impact is the harshest, there is eagerness for change. Urban dwellers have an interest to live in a cleaner city and local governments are at the frontline of these challenges.

Urban systems also offer the perfect opportunity to change course and get on the circular development pathway towards better quality of life in cities. The way we shape our urban space, construct our houses, supply and consume our food and spend our leisure time can be rethought based on circular economy principles. By working to design municipal waste and pollution out of the production and consumption process and keeping products and materials in use, we can work towards regenerating natural systems. 

Local governments have a key role to play here – they can lead by example by bringing circularity into urban infrastructure and municipal operations and can also incentivize businesses and residents to support the shift to circular economy. The first step in this journey can be to identify and prioritize circular opportunities for their city or region, for example through the inclusive version of the Circular City Scan Tool that we will soon be launching with our partners.

How can the circular economy become a reality for local governments globally?

Tuncer: Our patterns of consumption and production are tightly linked around the globe. The resource intense consumption practices in the Global North are putting pressure on the urban and rural ecosystems across the world but particularly in the Global South. If  high-income countries commit to a shift to resource efficient forms of consumption and production, that can ignite circular economy practices in low-income countries. 

However, circular development pathways in the Global South will require different solutions to those adopted in the Global North. It’s easy to see circularity primarily as better waste management and increased recycling. In fact, the socio-economic opportunities are far broader and more diverse. With the right enabling conditions, the circular development could provide new opportunities for economic diversification, value creation and skills development. 

Global South economies can leverage unique opportunities to move towards circularity. For example, informal sector workers already practice circularity in value chains like plastics, e-waste but under unhealthy and unfair working conditions. Informal waste recycling complements formal waste management systems, by diverting waste from landfill, but informal workers remain extremely vulnerable due to this informality. Local governments in these cities have the opportunity to leverage the circular waste management that is already taking place and create innovative financing schemes and partnerships to create fair jobs and build a skilled and supported workforce. 

Repair and maintenance services are still a thriving part of every-day consumption patterns in many Global South cities and local governments can help to preserve and spread those small businesses, keeping products in use. Sustainable living runs deep in many cultures but these traits are getting lost under the influence of global consumption trends. Sharing models can also provide access to goods at a lower cost and help improve livelihoods. Some examples include shared laundries, tool and equipment share, children’s toys and equipment rental, as well as shared transportation.

Moreover, with enough investment, cities can ‘leapfrog’ resource intense urban development schemes and take up digital and materials innovation at the heart of their economies. For example, quality housing and infrastructure can be delivered by adopting resilient design principles and using renewable construction materials like bamboo and rattan.