Approximately 6.4 billion people, or two-thirds of the world’s population, are expected to live in cities by 2050. The number of megacities (+10 million inhabitants) is also expected to increase from 28 to 41 by 2030.

Such concentrations of human beings living in proximity to one another poses significant environmental and economic challenges.

Cities currently consume two-thirds of total global energy supplies, produce over 70% of global greenhouse emissions and generate 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal and industrial waste every year. In Beijing alone, up to 500,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution.

Most, if not all, of these problems are associated with the ‘take, make, dispose’ economy in which we currently operate, and therefore the transition to more circular cities is not just essential but a moral imperative.

A circular city is a city that is powered by renewable energy sources and circulates resources.

Thankfully, cities offer a number of unique strengths with regards to transitioning to more regenerative, restorative and resilient economies.

Knowledge exchange and innovation is greatly accelerated, and there is the opportunity to realize massive efficiency savings in energy, food, infrastructure and resource distribution.

Cities and the Circular Economy

A pioneering initiative called the Circle Cities Program is attempting to leverage the dual strength of high innovation and increased efficiency opportunities to accelerate the circular transition in cities.

The program is initially being trialed in Glasgow (Scotland) and Amsterdam (The Netherlands).

The program follows four stages. Initially, an in-depth analysis is undertaken in partnership with the local municipality to explore and understand the city’s metabolism, i.e. how and where resources, energy, food, water and labor are being consumed and ‘digested.’

The results are then mapped using a Sankey diagram and categorized according to the economic sectors of the city.

Glasgow Circle Cities (Circle Economy)

(Courtesy of Circle Economy)

The second phase involves a roundtable of local stakeholders examining the resource map to identify the sectors that offer the biggest opportunity for increasing circularity.

Once strategic sectors have been identified, a Future Vision is designed, which outlines how each sector might be transformed to become more circular.

Based on this vision, the fourth phase outlines a detailed action plan with tangible steps the city municipality and other stakeholders can take to realize the vision.

Finally, a Circle Deepdive exercise is undertaken, which helps translate theory into action by identifying circular pilot projects in each respective sector and fostering commitment to take action from a coalition of stakeholders around each pilot.

Glasgow Circular Economy City Scan

Hot on the heels of winning the coveted Circulars Award for the world’s top circular economy nation, Scotland is demonstrating further aspirations in becoming home to the world’s most circular cities.

Glasgow is one of only two cities in the world to have undertaken the Circular Cities Program, and the learnings and outcomes have been remarkable. The program has brought clarity around the challenges associated with both political and business agendas.

The material flows were mapped in significant detail both spatially and volumetrically. This helped identify food & beverage as the sector offering the greatest potential for circular transformation.

This makes sense as Glasgow sits at the heart of a world-renowned food and drinks nation producing iconic products such as whisky, beer and smoked salmon.

A range of potential food and beverage circular innovations that could be easily adopted have been identified from all over the world. Due to the high number of breweries in Glasgow, one pilot project aims to recover waste heat from breweries as well as making bread from spent brewery grains.

On the flip side, over 1 million slices of bread are wasted every year in Glasgow, which provides a significant opportunity to mash up and incorporate them into the brewing process (like Toast Ale).

Another pilot project aims to reduce Glasgow’s reliance on imported fresh produce by growing fish and vegetables locally through aquaponics technology—like the Glasgow-based company Urban Catch.

Aquaponics, also embraced by companies such as GrowUp Urban Farms, has been proven to save up to 90% of the water and energy usually associated with importing produce from abroad by leveraging the filtering effect of plant roots to clean the water for fish; meanwhile, the fish feces provides ample nutrients for growing vegetables.

Glasgow GrowUp Urban Farms The Growup Box Aquaponics System

The GrowUp Box Aquaponic System (GrowUp Urban Farms)

The initiative, being implemented by Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, is now gearing up to convert these ideas into real projects by building a consortium of local stakeholders willing to implement the innovations and transfer learnings to others.

Alison McRae, Senior Director at Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, stated that “the Circle City Scan of Glasgow has been extremely beneficial for the business community in the city.”

“Through its comprehensive process, it’s brought into focus how the circular economy can become an important part of the overall economic ambition for Glasgow. It has also highlighted how Glasgow Chamber of Commerce can support local businesses to adopt circular principles and champion the circular economy.”

Future Challenges for the Circular Economy City Scan?

Undertaking such a pioneering initiative is not without its challenges. Questions remain as to how likely stakeholders from each pilot project are to share their learnings with potential competitors looking to implement similar circular solutions or how risk for pilot projects is shared among stakeholders when scaling up pilot projects.

Perhaps a trickier challenge is successfully transferring learnings between cities, considering the significant influence of local context on the success of the pilot projects.

Putting such questions aside, the results from the Glasgow experience demonstrate that there is a significant appetite from the business sector to participate in such an initiative.

Perhaps this is due to the competitive edge these solutions offer, the enhanced environmental credentials or maybe even the potential for increasing revenues through utilizing what was traditionally considered a ‘waste.’

Either way, if successful, the Circular Cities Program will help pave the way to redesigning our cities to become prosperous, clean, regenerative and resilient places to live.