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Circular economy

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To address the challenges of climate change issues and environmental impacts of human activities, alongside the Sustainable Development Goals, European cities need to reconsider their resources management and consuming model, hence rethink the urban economy framework. Most of the consumption, waste production, and emission of greenhouse gasses occurs in cities. EU cities are heavily dependent on external resources to meet the demands of their citizens for food and energy for instance, while they have a high density of knowledge, data, and capital. This enables cities to drive the circular economy agenda forward and unlock related economic, environmental, and social benefits.

Circular economy (CE) is about shifting from a linear use of primary resources in a “Take – Make – Waste” fashion to a circular “Take – Make – Remake” economy. It should allow for products, materials and resources to be maintained as long as possible in the economy. The main question is then how linear economy, whose growth is coupled with consumption of primary resources, can be transformed into circular economy.

Circular Economy's challenges have been presented to European cities twice in the 2nd call for proposals (2016) and the 5th one (2019), acknowledging the complexity and relevance of the issue for at least three reasons.

  • First, the implementation of circular economy solutions needs a strong framework of cooperation between a wide range and great number of the consumption loop stakeholders as well as a participation process.
  • Second, the final aim of circular economy is therefore to be able to scale up and reach a greater part of the consumption loop and implies to develop new and sustainable business models.
  • Finally, the circular economy challenges are linked to social, technical and economic issues. Therefore, they need new frameworks to be tested in order to address crosscutting challenges regarding exploratory research as well as cooperation and training.

Cities are in first line to implement concrete measures to address these challenges. Hence, UIA invited European urban authorities to put forward innovative circular economy actions addressing the whole loop of consumption - from design to recycling and reusing issues regarding both resources and goods.

The second UIA call for proposals emphasized the crucial issue of plastic waste together with electronic equipment. Indeed, these types of waste have a strong negative impact on the urban metabolism, contaminating water and undermining biodiversity. The 5th UIA Call for proposals in 2019 focused more specifically on water management. Indeed, water scarcity and droughts have worsened in some parts of the EU in recent decades, with damaging effects on our environment and economy. One of the main challenges is therefore to alleviate pressure on over-exploited water resources tackling management, prevention and recycling issues by providing water-efficiency measures, solutions to reuse treated wastewater, innovation to make water collection and treatment plants climate-neutral or climate-positive. The access to safe drinking water especially for vulnerable social groups is underlined in the 5th call for proposals, as it is a major challenge regarding both health issues and energy loss.


Trends of the solutions proposed

During the first call for proposals under this topic, 72 urban authorities from 14 European Member States proposed innovative solutions to circular economy issues; therefore, emphasizing their complexity and relevance in the European urban context.

Most of the proposals submitted under the circular economy topic during 2016 call for proposals focused on three main dimensions of the consumption and supply chain: prevention (i.e nudging for behavior change, awareness raising), re-use and repair areas (i.e collaborative economy measures, industrial symbiosis). However, roughly half of the proposals closed the loop, in the sense that a product or material is included from the supply chain to consumption. Yet, the proposals took an integrative approach as most of them often chose solutions and activities that have positive impacts on job creation and social cohesion.

On the other hand, proposals that would have a consumption impact through new governance tools, such as economic incentives, green procurement and new business models were less widely present.

Concerning UIA 5th call for proposals, 53 applications were received from 15 EU Member States. The urban authorities are mainly proposing single-sector and technical solutions emphasizing the importance of SME’s and university in the experimentation process. The solutions proposed deal with water reuse, purification and management; waste issues, such as Construction and Demolition waste (C&D) and identifying new sources of reused materials; smart energy management solutions. However, very few of them dealt with plastic single use issues.

UIA projects, solutions implemented and common issues

Looking at the 8 projects selected in 2016 gives an overview of the issues that urban authorities are dealing with when implementing circular economy practices. Most of the projects have a holistic or a large-scale approach as they combine a large range of actions dealing with economic, social and environmental issue. Thus, the projects deal with the zero waste cities strategy challenges with a wide range of tools, activities and techniques including both offline and online tools. The combination of these different approaches and actions creates a new framework in which innovation can be found.

  • Antwerp Circular South – engaging the community in an online and offline circular economy, Antwerp
  • A2UFood –Avoidable and Unavoidable Food Wastes: A Holistic Managing Approach for Urban Environments, Heraklion
  • Super Circular Estate – First Circular Social Housing Estate for 100% Material and Social Circularity, Kerkrade
  • Urban infra revolution – Circular economy materials and novel method development to produce recyclable and functional urban construction products, Lappeenranta
  • APPLAUSE – Alien Plant Species from harmful to useful citizens’ led activities, Ljubljana
  • URBAN SOIL 4 FOOD – Establishment of Innovative Urban Soil Based Economy Circles to Increase Local Food Self-sufficiency and Minimize Environmental Footprint, Maribor
  • Earth Cycle – On-site recycling process of extracted soil from the subway work in SEVRAN and its impact on the circular economy, Sevran
  • BRICK-BEACH – Artificial regeneration of urban beaches with eroded recycled aggregates, Velez-Malaga


One project has been selected from the 5th call of proposals on Circular Economy:

Two major trends can be underlined in UIA projects: Construction and Demolition Waste specific challenges and cooperation and participative approaches.

Although circular economy is a quite extended field, 4 out of 8 projects chose to deal with the same and specific challenges of Construction and Demolition Waste (CDW). It is, indeed, an important issue as today, only 1% of building elements are reused in Europe, following their first application. The result is a high environmental impact and a net loss of economic value. Depending on the local challenges, the scale and level of building construction vary:

  • Circular infrastructure projects

The BRICK-BEACH project of Velez-Malaga combines a zero waste and decontamination approach to deal with its coastal erosion and waste problem. The project is planning to build a new recycling treatment plant, which will produce a certified high quality recycled aggregate from construction, demolition waste and illegal dumping. This will be used in the regeneration project of the Mezquitilla beach and will mitigate its erosion.

  • Circular buildings

The Super Circular Estate of Kekrade is one example of innovative circular buildings as it aims at providing social housing out of reusing and recycling materials acquired from deconstruction. The approach of the project is not only about building four pilot circular housing units but is also about providing a high-quality, desirable urban environment and affordable housing opportunities in a shrinking area.

  • Building materials

The Urban Infra Revolution project of Lappeenranta proposes the development of new material for construction industry in extreme weather areas, using local waste (ash, tailings, cement…) as a raw material for street furniture. By closing the material loop in order to diminish the CO2 emissions of urban building, the city offers an innovative approach to address zero waste cities challenges. Sevran is also experiencing this innovative approach in order to deal with soil waste that is going to be extracted from two major metro stations. The Earth Cycle is indeed transforming these excavation materials from the construction of new metro stations into certified earth building materials (bricks, panel of clay, wall coating, earth with fibers) to regenerate the new urban area with earth building.


The overall projects focus on inclusive approaches as implementing circular economy actions require a strong framework of cooperation between a wide range and great number of the consumption loop actors as well as a thorough participation process. Hence, these two dimensions are usually brought together as enabling broad citizens’ participation and bringing stakeholders to work together are key in ensuring a real societal change towards circular economy. Therefore, UIA projects shape their combined actions according to their local context and target groups. The Antwerp Circular South is a relevant example to demonstrate how some projects directly address the educational and behavioral challenges. The project uses a participative approach, testing advanced technological solutions through online and outline activities, to achieve a behavioral change in waste management. Concretely, it tests community-driven activities about sharing repairing and reuse of materials that optimize the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas and therefore develop the community’s circular dynamics to reduce its resource footprint.

In Heraklion, the project combines different activities in order both to target citizens’ consumption through a food waste monitoring app and the food stakeholders of the city with solutions such as a second opportunity restaurant and a bioplastic production system. This approach allows the A2UFood project to deal with the overall circular economy loop, managing food waste in all its aspects: reduction, reuse, recycling.

The co-production of knowledge is also at the core of UIA projects as searching for new resources implies to test the potential of underestimated materials. The APPLAUSE project of the city of Ljubljana is addressing this particular challenge by turning the Invasive Alien Plant Species (IAPS) ecological problem to a resource, hence to frame a new business model. This objective is to be achieved through educational activities and multi-scale transformations that can be performed at home (e.g. food, dyes), in tutored workshops by citizens (e.g. to produce wood or paper articles) and in craftsman laboratories (e.g. to manufacture innovative products with market potential in social enterprises, employing vulnerable groups).  

The city of Maribor also enhances the community-led practices in its URBAN SOIL 4 FOOD project. It aims at using city’s waste to produce urban soil for community gardens in order to target the soil depletion issue. The entire process is then included in a strong cooperation framework in order to collect bio-waste for agriculture, to evaluate the best possible soil mixes and enable the community’s land work.


First lessons learnt

  • Be bold but not alone. Engage citizens and all stakeholders of the production, distribution and consumption loop as well as civil servants from the very beginning of the project.
  • Start-up but scale-up. In order to change the economy, transferability and scaling up must be ensured.
  • Learn by doing and change by learning. Build a coherent and targeted involvement strategy to get children and their parents on board in order to raise awareness and change the overall mind set.
  • In order to implement circular actions and properly deal with procurement in innovative projects, political support at city level is needed.

Get inspired and find more with UIA experts and UIA Knowledge Lab

UIA experts capture, analyze and narrate the main findings, lessons learnt and experiences coming from the different UIA circular economy projects. Look for their journals (analysis on main challenges for implementation) zoom-ins (focus on a crosscutting dimension or specific component of the project) and web articles (overview of the project) to get deeper knowledge about circular economy and related topics. 

Explore the UIA Knowledge Lab and search for key words such as: construction materials, waste management, recycling.

Read the 2 articles about circular economy, analyzing the trends of the projects:

Have a look at our YouTube playlist and learn more about Ljubljana project.




proposals received


projects approved

€ 36 M


See all resources on this topic Go to the UIA Knowledge Lab

Circular economy's projects