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Behind the European Circular Cities Declaration – an interview with Kaitlyn Dietz, ICLEI

7 min

Budapest, signatory of European Circular Cities Declaration. c. Ádám Berkecz, Unsplash

The European Circular Cities Declaration launched in October signals clear intent from signatories to shed linear thinking and work sustainably. But there are 114 differing definitions of what a circular economy actually *is*. So how did they get there? Quadrant Smart chats to Kaitlyn Dietz, officer of sustainable economy and procurement at ICLEI, to find out more!

The joint declaration on the circular economy, signed by 28 founding signatories across Europe from Lappeenranta in Finland, down to Florence and Prato in Italy, gives cities a chance to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to thinking sustainably. Birthed from the EU Horizon 2020 CityLoops project, the declaration seeks to share best practice on building circular cities across Europe: transitioning from the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model in public services to circular, closed-loop systems – especially in key value chains such as ICT and construction.

Kaitlyn Dietz, officer of sustainable economy and procurement, ICLEI c. BCNUEJ

Seeking to embed a circular way of thinking, the joint declaration gives signatories “a clear political will” to reduce waste in their cities, according to Kaitlyn Dietz. “This project started last October, with seven small and medium-sized European cities, from six different European countries,” explained the officer at ICLEI (ICLEI, an international association of governments committed to sustainable development, is one of the supporting partners of the declaration).

“We realised in this that the cities needed to have a commitment and a clear political will from the top for them to have this mandate and green light to go ahead and try these pilot measures, and implement in an integrated way across their organisations.”

We realised in this that the cities needed to have a commitment and a clear political will from the top

City and regional municipality signatories aside, the list of supporting partners who co-developed the list is strong. EUROCITIES, the European Investment Bank, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to name but a few. But, as Kaitlyn notes, with at least 114 published definitions on the Circular Economy, it been a long process in taking in a range of perspectives. Using bimonthly web meetings to update the content of the declaration, a working draft document was sent out to all stakeholders, to discuss updates and progress.

Balancing the vision

“This is something that having a working group of capital cities, but also smaller cities. Cities from the north of Europe to the south, from Oslo to Seville, having a regional perspective really helped us in getting a vision that was agreeable to all,” explained Kaitlyn. The Slovenian city of Maribor, for example, is in the earlier stages of encouraging circular economy initiatives in key areas such as construction and energy – in contrast to the Italian city of Florence, of which one of the tenets of the Firenze Circular City plan is to reduce the production of undifferentiated waste and the consequent use of landfill.

The mandate of local and regional government is the same across Europe

Maribor, Slovenia. c. Katja Nemec, Unsplash

Kaitlyn explained that despite stakeholders being at different stages in their circular strategy, many challenges are pan-European. “The mandate of local and regional government is the same across Europe,” Kaitlyn noted. “They have some very key things to manage, and they are facing similar challenges. They are facing the climate crisis jointly, they are facing the COVID-19 crisis, and the recessions that come with it.

“I would say this has definitely been a priority this year of economic impacts of the crisis, and then looking at how we can use the circular economy perspective to focus on green job creation; on value retention of existing resources; and of course value recovery of resources that we’re currently sending to incineration and landfill.”

As a result, the 10 ‘levers’ at cities’ disposal in the declaration include the financial advantages of embedding circularity principles in urban planning; promoting the market for circular products in procurement; and providing economic incentives to encourage circular behaviour across those cities.

The continual economic factor throughout the circular strategy is an intriguing one. How can those economic incentives be provided to encourage “circular behaviour” in European cities?

“It depends on how we frame the idea of the economic incentive,” answered Kaitlyn. The procurement officer continued, noting that providing a grass-roots local economic incentive for residents to move away from ‘take-make-dispose’ linear thinking – such as in the Belgian city of Leuven – provides a more positive incentive for city stakeholders to think circularly, as opposed to more draconian schemes of taxation, for example.

The procurement potential

Local authority procurement of services is a major cog and one of the “low-hanging fruits” to for cities to more sustainable, Kaitlyn said. With public procurement accounting for almost a fifth of Europe’s GDP, procurement is a “great opportunity” to stimulate green innovation in the European market.

“This all comes down to life cycle thinking. Instead of thinking about my initial investment today, and what benefits I have tomorrow, we’re thinking about the whole life-cycle impact of the purchases we make.” Kaitlyn highlighted the City of Amsterdam’s Quay Wall renovation project, where the municipality set up an innovation partnership with suppliers in the region, requiring life-cycle analysis and environmental product declarations to have full disclosure on the impacts of the materials purchased.  “They have this life-cycle perspective at the forefront,” Kaitlyn explained.

ReTuna, the world’s first recycling mall in Eskilstuna, Sweden. c. Lina Östling

Circling back to the economic incentive of the declaration – Kaitlyn argues cities will encourage green innovation and cutting-edge solutions, building a skills base in their own cities, such as in procurement processes in Mechelen and Eskilstuna. “This is in their best interests in every sense of the word,” Kaitlyn said.

Review and reflect

“This isn’t just signing a paper and it’s over,” Kaitlyn said. Kaitlyn, the team at ICLEI, and all signatories have a major opportunity to share practice and enter communication with cities and organisations at the forefront of circular economy development across Europe.

We know that it’s a challenge. You can go further if you go together

Kaitlyn continued: “Cities love getting to see the gritty details and the backgrounds on pilots and initiatives that have happened in other places to be able to learn from this and apply it themselves. We know that it’s a challenge. You can go further if you go together.”

Helsinki Circular Strategy c. City of Helsinki

The signatories of the declaration will attend a webinar in December to begin exchanging best practice. Larger European cities, with fully-fledged circular schemes such as Prague and Helsinki, can share what worked – and what didn’t – in reducing waste in mobility, construction, ICT services, and planning, to signatories in the earlier stages of their road to reducing waste and linear thinking.

“We want to meet cities where they’re at in their transition with this. It’s not about whether or not a signatory is the leader of the circular economy in the world.  The goal is to be ambitious and make progress,” Kaitlyn concluded.

“There will be no punishment or saying that someone hasn’t done what they should have, but rather it will be done to incentivise that they do work, so that it can be, for example, profiles to the website and through other communications and activities – and also for themselves to feel that they’re making good on their commitments.”

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