Accelerating the shift towards circular future cities
The generation of plastic waste shows no signs of abating, contributing to more than 150 million metric tons of plastic already in the ocean. Plastic debris is currently the most abundant type of litter in the ocean, making up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
To address the crisis, some countries are signaling that the age of single-use plastics is coming to an end. While this is a positive step, we must also accelerate the transition to a circular economy to manage the waste that we are already producing.
Given the urgency of our mission, when seeking solutions to advance the circular economy, it is crucial that we focus our efforts on what will create the greatest impact. Cities and urbanized communities are hotspots for plastic leakage, with research revealing that approximately 80% of plastic waste originates from land-based sources and over half from urban centers. By ensuring circularity in modern urban development practices, we can effectively tackle the root of the problem and build climate change resilience.
This year’s World Urban Forum brought together leading experts from across the private and public sectors to discuss critical actions needed to shift to circularity and create smart, sustainable future cities. I had the opportunity to join this global conference on urbanization to unpack the topic in greater detail. On the panel I participated in, there was a clear consensus that the circular economy presents a huge opportunity for cities. However, to achieve transformative impact, improved data collection, greater coordination across stakeholder groups, and a systems perspective to achieving change are needed.
Understanding the potential for impact in cities
Home to over half of the world’s population and accounting for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, cities and urban centers play a central role in achieving the vision outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the UN’s blueprint to achieving a better future for all.
The impact of cities on global health is significant and as testing grounds for the latest circular solutions and business models, they hold immense opportunities to advance the circular economy. For example, when it comes to plastic pollution, investing in waste management and recycling infrastructure, especially in developing economies and particularly in cities, could help to stem the vast tide of mismanaged waste that enters our oceans.
In addition to reducing pollution, a circular approach creates new opportunities for economic growth. By keeping materials in the economy for as long as possible and minimizing resource loss, we can better capture and fully maximize the value of materials such as plastics for financial returns. This will in turn require innovations in business models, systems, and services, therefore unlocking new revenue streams and efficiencies.
Despite the vast economic, social, and environmental benefits, cities are faced with challenges ranging from resource availability to the lack of funding and technical expertise. Driving systemic change is a highly complex task that cannot be tackled alone, and the support and expertise of various industry participants are critical. To that end, we partnered with Ocean Conservancy and Resilient Cities Network to introduce the Urban Ocean program in 2020, with the objective of facilitating cities’ journeys towards circularity by linking them to opportunities that improve waste management and recycling systems.
We need an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to bring a circular vision to life
Smart, sustainable urban development needs to have circular economy principles at its core. To bring this vision to life, we need all stakeholders – governments, investors, formal and informal actors – to work together to drive change across the full value chain. For instance, there is minimal value in directing investments toward new recycling technologies in a city if the city does not have a robust plastic waste collection and supply chain in place.
The value of a collaborative approach is illustrated through the joint efforts of The Circulate Initiative and two of our many partners, The Incubation Network and Circulate Capital. Together, we work to bridge existing gaps, ranging from financing to data and insights. For example, to address the significant funding gap in the circular economy for plastics, The Circulate Initiative provides investors with tools and resources across emerging markets to facilitate decision-making. The Incubation Network ensures a pipeline of investment-ready solutions while supporting initiatives that improve livelihoods and social protection for informal waste workers who are the backbone of waste management systems in the region. Our mission-aligned investment partner, Circulate Capital, launched the world’s first investment fund dedicated to preventing ocean plastic. The Circulate Capital Ocean Fund is an example of a new blended finance mechanism, bringing together public and private funds to reduce risk and accelerate investment. The fund’s investors are leading global corporations, and it is also backed by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation in partnership with USAID, further de-risking investments.
All players in the ecosystem need to work together to ensure we can accelerate innovative solutions and set the stage for the circular economy to thrive. Together, we can harness the power of collaboration to develop resilient, future-proof and sustainable cities.
The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ (2020), Breaking the Plastic Wave
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (2021), Close the Plastic Tap Programme
Eunomia Research & Consulting (2016), Plastics in the Marine Environment.
Lebreton, L., & Andrady, A. (2019). Future scenarios of global plastic waste generation and disposal.
UN Habitat (2011), Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements