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Urban Development and Circular Economy: Inspirational Approaches from Across the Americas

During the inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas in April, ICLEI facilitated conversations between mayors and experts from across the Americas, illustrating how cities are promoting a just transition from a linear to a circular economy across the urban space.

During each dialogue, mayors were asked to describe the main opportunities and challenges related to transitioning their city to a circular economy with a focus on the specific entry points, and they were also asked to share their experiences. Subject matter experts were asked to share their work in cities and how it supports the transition to a circular economy. Explore the topics:

Mayors and subject matter experts from across the Americas convened for a dialogue on the challenges and opportunities related to transitioning cities to more circular economies.

The Gradual and Just Transition to a Circular Economy

The first conversation, facilitated by Edgar Villaseñor Franco, the Regional Secretary of ICLEI MECS, focused on the just and gradual transition to a circular economy. We heard from Mayor Oscar Leggs Castro of the City of Los Cabos, Mexico, Mayor Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas of the City of Monterrey, Mexico, and Deputy Mayor Isabella de Roldão of Recife, Brazil. Each of these mayors shared their city’s unique experience and considerations on a just transition while highlighting the opportunities that can arise from product innovation amidst waste reduction and material reuse. Deputy Mayor Isabella de Roldão shared that the City of Recife supports Palha de Arroz Cooperativa, a women’s cooperative focused on recycling and repurposing materials for sale in a handmade goods shop. The Deputy Mayor explained, “We have valuable and practical use pieces made from discarded waste…and more than that, it generates income for those who need it most.”

This conversation highlighted the reality that urban environments have largely been designed for and by economically prioritized populations, leaving less privileged groups such as persons with disabilities, gender minorities, communities of color, children, and seniors with significant challenges to benefit from the economic and employment opportunities available locally. Investments in circular economy programs and projects, such as that mentioned by Deputy Mayor Roldão, offer a chance to rethink how residents secure employment in city life and enhance social equity across all groups and neighborhoods. Circular economy programs must be planned to include positive equity outcomes that will benefit all residents alike.

The same woman who is collecting waste to make the circular economy is pregnant, has many children at home, and often it is she who needs to bring food for her family. So thinking about the sustainability and circular economy agenda includes the women’s empowerment agenda.”

Deputy Mayor Isabella de Roldão, City of Recife, Brazil

Urban Food Systems Policy and the Circular Economy

The second conversation, facilitated by Megan Meaney, the Executive Director of ICLEI Canada, shifted the session to focus on urban food systems and the importance of public and private partnerships to create circular food systems in cities. During this conversation, we heard from Mayor Axel Grael of Niterói, Brazil on the challenge of being a completely urban area dependent on receiving food from other municipalities. Mayor Grael elaborated on this by highlighting the need to ensure Niterói residents’ access to high-quality, healthy food. Councilor René Bédon of the City of Quito, Ecuador also discussed the need for urban and rural collaboration, noting that Quito has a large rural area in addition to its urban area. As a result, the city has coordinated with its agricultural producers to supply nearby cities with food while promoting food sovereignty.

Mayor Cam Guthrie of the City of Guelph, Canada also shared the benefits of building relationships as three other Canadian communities are looking to replicate many of Guelph’s circular economy strategies. Guelph has strived to make it easier for businesses to connect and work together to transition to a circular economy. For example, the City has helped initiate relationships between a local juice maker and a tea company so that waste pulp from the juicemaker can be sold to and used by the tea company. Partnerships between businesses can lead to direct reductions in food waste and greenhouse gas emissions–an issue that Maddie Keating, City Strategist at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), explained saying “Food waste reduction is a climate solution.” Keating wrapped up the conversation by providing further validity to the importance of collaboration in advancing circular urban food systems, noting that cities cannot do this work without the support of federal and state governments. 

“Imagine going to the grocery store, getting five bags (hopefully reusable bags) of groceries, and on your way out to the parking lot, you drop two of those bags in the trash, and that food goes to the landfill where it emits harmful methane gas. That’s essentially what we’re doing in our food system today. We need, as the Mayor of Monterrey said, a paradigm shift in how we think about food, how we value food, and how we define waste.”

Maddie Keating, City Strategist, People & Communities Program, Natural Resources Defense Council,

Resource and Waste Management in the Circular Economy

In the third conversation of the session, Alyssa Wilbur, Program Officer with ICLEI USA, facilitated a conversation on resource and waste management between Mayor Ravinder Bhalla of the City of Hoboken, USA, Mayor Claudio Castro Salas of the Municipality of Renca, Chile, Mayor Renán Barrera Concha of Mérida, Mexico, and Jamie Harkins, the Circular Economy Manager for the City of Boulder USA. This conversation highlighted the limitations and challenges of local waste management and the barriers these pose to creating a more circular economy. Mayor Castro Salas shared that Renca is one of 32 cities and communes in the region responsible for their own waste management. This lack of uniformity and consistency across the region has made waste management, including collection and disposal, one of Renca’s most expensive public contracts. The Chilean Government passed an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law three years ago,  promoting reuse and recovery of waste, and incentivising and facilitating waste separation at source. EPR laws are intended to reduce the burden on local governments and allow for funds from waste management contracts to be reallocated towards waste reduction and recovery efforts in communities such as Renca. This effort is one of many being enacted through the implementation of Chile’s Circular Economy Roadmap – a long-term vision and strategy towards a circular economy that eliminates waste and pollution, circulates products and materials, and regenerates nature. 

For Hoboken, Mayor Bhalla explained that expanding waste management and recovery facilities is limited as the City is small and densely urban with no space for building the facilities needed to promote circular innovation and efficient material recovery. Additionally, the State of New Jersey doesn’t currently have a composting facility, making it costly for Hoboken to send compost to facilities located further away meaning the City must leverage partnerships with the State to address this challenge. Local governments must provide adequate waste management services to residents, while also seeking to solve challenges associated with high costs and limited space for waste management facilities. Through Hoboken’s Zero Waste Initiative, the City seeks to employ innovative waste management strategies to improve quality of life and achieve Zero Waste with equitable outcomes.

Jamie Harkins, the Circular Economy Manager with the City of Boulder, USA discussed the critical need to focus on equitable access to services, including infrastructure and facilities, aimed at reducing and recovering waste, coupled with participation in programs, incentives and regulations that promote zero waste. This approach requires actively engaging historically underserved, marginalized communities and prioritizing their feedback when advancing programs and projects that aim to increase access and participation in waste management services.

A Conversation with the Inter-American Development Bank

During the next conversation, Rodrigo Perpetuo, Executive Director of ICLEI South America, and Maria Camila Uribe, Principal Technical Lead of the Housing and Urban Development Division and the Coordinator of the IDB Cities Network at the Inter-American Development Bank discussed how financial systems, policymakers, and urban planners can work to ensure that circular economy principles are prioritized in the design and implementation of development projects. Perpetuo made several recommendations to improve circular systems in cities across the Americas, serving as a call to action for these stakeholders to: 

  • Allocate financial and technical resources to local governments to implement just transition from linear to circular;
  • Create a cooperation program between cities with the aim of highlighting best practices and disseminating replicable examples;
  • Use the power of sustainable public procurement to drive healthy and  circular consumption patterns;
  • Include criteria and develop a methodology for selecting projects that advance the circular economy across the urban space, while at the same time prioritizing projects that achieve emission reduction targets and a just transition, namely an inclusive economy for all; and
  • Develop and implement official circular legal frameworks, technical support, financial resources, political actions, and communication mechanisms.

Climate Change and the Circular Economy

Mayor Michael B. Hancock of Denver wrapped up the session by discussing the critical role the circular economy plays in addressing the climate crisis. The circular economy furthers equitable climate action progress by reducing GHG emissions associated with the traditional “take-make-waste” model of the linear economy. Throughout the US, cities design out waste, shorten supply chains, and increase sharing and reuse, but only recently are these activities connected through the concept of a circular economy. 

Denver is leading the transition to a more circular economy through analysis of existing policies, integration of circular economy strategies in planning and implementation, and through convening peers and stakeholders. According to the Mayor, Denver residents have made it clear that they support changes to the current system that support strong, effective climate action. Mayor Hancock highlighted two key efforts Denver is progressing to achieve a just transition along with emission reduction goals.

Mayor Micheal B. Hancock speaks on circular economy practices at the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado.

Mayor Micheal B. Hancock shares how Denver is integrating circular economy practices to foster community wealth-building and achieve greenhouse gas emission goals.

Denver Food Vision leverages public and private investments to fill community-identified gaps and make neighborhood food environments more complete, including investments in neighborhood retail spaces, food, co-ops, gardens, food pantries, market locations, and/or nonprofit educational urban farms. The vision seeks to promote opportunities for non-commercial local food production such as community gardens, nonprofit educational urban farms and edible landscapes on both public and private lands in low to moderate-income and high-density neighborhoods. Additionally, this vision leverages the strength of Denver’s food businesses to accelerate economic opportunity across the city. Some actions to support this include enhancing food system infrastructure; strengthening connections between Colorado farms, local distributors and Denver-based food businesses; and fostering community wealth-building and economic mobility opportunities through food business ownership opportunities and developing food businesses that support living wage jobs.

Denver’s Sustainable Resource Management Plan recommends diverting 50% of all solid waste generated by 2027 and 70% by 2032. Even accounting for Denver’s future growth, achieving a 70% diversion rate will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 3,000,000 MtCO2e, the equivalent of taking over 600,000 cars off the road.

The City has a number of efforts and programs already underway, including:

  • Recycling and composting education efforts citywide;
  • Promotion and growth in composting collection for Denver residential customers;
  • The Bring Your Own Bag Program, launched in July 2021, implementing a 10-cent fee for plastic and paper bags provided in retail establishments;
  • Passage of a waste reduction ordinance in 2021, aimed at reducing the volume of single-use items in food service establishments; and
  • A proposal to implement a fee for waste hauling services for city residential customers, which will encourage waste reduction and provide free composting and recycling to all customers

According to the Mayor, achieving the plan’s ambitious goal requires supportive policies both locally and at the state level. Continued investment in infrastructure and education now will lay the foundation for future diversion and help the City and County of Denver move toward a more circular economy.

Curious about Circular Transformations? Dive Deeper with ICLEI Circulars Regional Hubs

Building circularity into community systems and local economies can unlock massive job-growth potential while strengthening local economic resilience — but it requires moving away from big-picture theory and toward locally relevant, on-the-ground systems transformation. From Guelph to Renca, Denver to Merida, cities across the Americas demonstrate what this circular transformation can look like. Visit the ICLEI Circulars Regional Hubs for more on the work happening in cities worldwide to drive the transition to a circular economy.