23. October 2020
Topic:  Circular economy

🏙️ From Vision to Reality: The Rise of Circular Cities in Europe

The cities of tomorrow are being built today. Sit down with Michael Londesborough and Vojtěch Vosecký as they discuss the transformative journey of Circular Prague and how its principles are reshaping Europe's urban landscape.Discover how European cities are pioneering sustainable urban living for a brighter tomorrow.

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Interview transcript 

ML (Michael Londesborough): Today, I have with me Vojtěch Vosecký, who is the co-founder of INCIEN (Institute of Circular Economy) and a circular economy specialist, working with many organizations on the transition from our linear economy to a new circular one. Previously, we had Vojtěch on the show, and we were talking about the intellectual and the strategical basis of how we can transition here in Prague to the circular economy. Many of these points were summarized in a document he co-authored called the Prague Circular Scan, which provided the structure for that transition into three main segments - the construction sector, the household sector, and the utility sector. This document also maps the resource flow going into these segments and identifies areas where a transition to the circular economy can bring us many benefits. Today, we will talk about the implementation of measures this document suggests.

ML: Vojtěch, welcome for a second time.

VV (Vojtěch Vosecký): Thanks, it's good to be here.

ML: Well, thank you for coming. I'm going to go straight to the point. We know the strategic basis now, tell me about the implementation - what's happening at the moment in Prague?

VV: Just to start off, the Circle Scan Prague was an amazing thing we've done together with the Institute of Circle Economy and other relevant stakeholders. It was about creating this applicable vision for Prague and the circle economy. And we have gathered local stakeholders, defined a lot of different strategies, mapped the material flows within the key sectors of our interest and even recommended several pilot projects that we could do together with Prague and with these key stakeholders that we gathered.

ML: So you've got a network of stakeholders who are interested in this transition and you've identified concrete measures you can do. What are these projects, these pilot projects you just mentioned?

VV: Yes, like you said, we have three key sectors - construction and demolition, utilities and households. For each, we defined about seven strategies, which in this participatory process with the local state goals, we redefined to one key pilot project that we all agreed has the biggest potential to really make the transition towards a circular economy. When it comes for the utilities, we saw a huge opportunity to turn the bio waste of Prague citizens and businesses into new resources such as biofuels or organic fertilizers. When it comes to construction and development, we thought that the biggest impact that the city can have is to set rules for new construction and also demolition in order for it to be more circular. We recommended creating circular economic guidelines for this sector. For the households, we focused on mostly the bulky waste such as furniture or when you're maybe renovating your apartment, you have a lot of waste that you just throw away, which unfortunately ends up being landfilled in Prague. And we're talking about 50 000 tons of this waste a year. And we saw a huge opportunity to support different consumer behavior that would support activities such as reuse, repair, or refurbished, and the city can help with that.

ML: Okay, I want to take a look at some of these specifics you just mentioned briefly. So you started with a consensual idea that we could look at focusing on bio waste and its conversion into bio fuel. So tell me, what are the current figures? What are we doing currently with all that food waste that is generated in the home, in restaurants? Where does that go now and where is it going to go to in the future?

VV: Yes, that's a good question. The first thing we ran into was the problem with the data, because when we started looking into this, we found out no one really knows. Not so much research has been done in prior, but luckily there was a lot of inspiration from abroad. Basically, we estimated and agreed that about 30% of what we throw away in our household into these black bins, called mixed municipal waste, is the waste that we do not separate - the food waste. And currently, the city is not really collecting it from the citizens, so it gets thrown out into the black bins, and the black bins gets transported to the local waste-to-energy plant where the biomass, together with other fractions of the municipal waste, gets turned into energy.

ML: ...because, of course, bio waste tends to have a large water content, and that's going for incineration. 30% - that's a lot of material which is going to take a lot of energy to incinerate by itself, so it seems to be a very logical thing to collect it separately. But surely, it's going to be difficult to collect - how would you do that? What's the plan?

VV: First of all, people are used to collect different fractions of organic waste. It's not the food waste, but the people that have gardens or big yards to take care of - a lot of them are used to have a brown bin focused on the organic waste from the gardens, which gets composted. But that's not the biggest issue in our eyes - the biggest issue is the food waste which is created in our kitchens or restaurant, etc. That has several challenges - the first, like you mentioned, is the collection... “How do we get it from the people? How do we teach them to separate?” - the rule number one, when it comes to waste and waste separation, is that you have to make it easy for the people. What we're dealing with right now is creating a plan to set up a door-to-door collection of organic waste and other different recyclable fractions of municipal waste, so that people have it in their yards, on their porches, in every household, in every building. There hopefully will be a brown bin for the food waste. And of course, there's also an economic instrument that we're working with - we want to make it cheaper for people to separate and encourage them, because they have to pay for the black bin that gets it burned, but 30% of it is organic…

ML: So I can make potentially 30% savings by just doing a better job of putting my waste foods into a special bin, for which somebody comes, collects it for me and not only do I save money, but I get a good feeling that it's going into the circular economy... Okay, that's something we can all do, but if I looked into the Prague Circular Scan document, by far and certainly in terms of tonnage, the majority of waste in Prague is coming from the construction sector - I'm presuming a lot of this is concrete and similar materials? What's the plan with these and what to do with these?

VV: Yes, like you said, the difference is huge. The construction and demolition sector in all countries, in the whole globe, is producing by far the biggest amount of waste. And in Prague, we're talking about maybe 3 million tons of waste from construction and demolition, and about 400 thousand tons of waste from citizens and their households - so it's a huge difference. First, what we need to do - we need to stop that flow of waste, and that goes for any waste we're thinking about. We need to design out waste from our system - that's rule number one, if you want to make that transition between the linear and the circular economy. When it comes to the construction and demolition sector, we need to start building differently. We need to design our houses and our buildings in order for them to be, for example, dismantled, modular, repaired or refurbished in order to preserve the materials and keep them flowing in the loop.

ML: That suggests to me then that some of these construction materials don't lend themselves particularly to a recycling, and therefore we need to be thinking about it at the design stage - to design that we can build things and then take them apart and reuse elsewhere? Is that a fair comment?

VV: Exactly. It's about 80% of the waste, the future waste happens in a design phase. Not only in the construction business, but when you think of your phone or when you're equipping your apartment.

ML: I'm with you, but when you mentioned stakeholders, are you confident in your collaboration with the major construction companies in Prague? Are they on board? Are they looking to change their designs in order to build the buildings that can be easily disassembled as opposed to broken up and thrown away? Have they got plans for action?

VV: Yes, the ones that decided to join the Circular Scan, Prague - yes. I mean they have their own interest in being more sustainable and circular and they might not be the general majority and the business-as-usual companies, but there are couple really progressive big corporates that sees the sustainability as the core feature of their future existence and they are on board and on it not only in Prague, but elsewhere around the world. But it will take a lot of convincing if we want this to go mainstream.

ML: I want to move now from this particular resource as, for example, concrete and large buildings to another material that which in difference to concrete actually lends itself to many recycling strategies, and that’s the material of different plastics - polymers. So plastics, as we have talked with several people on this show, can be sources of different recycling strategies. What do we do now in Prague to help engender this sort of different plastic futures?

VV: In Prague we have two different scenarios that we’re looking at. First, preventing the flow of single use, throwaway, non-recyclable plastics from even becoming wastes by forcing different rules, maybe how we organize events in the city of Prague, how we equip our offices, or for example even external events ask Prague for support, they also have to abide to different specific rules that face up non-recyclable plastics and other single-use materials. Then the other thing that we are looking at is what we call post-consumer plastic packaging. In other words, what we – you and me or others throw away as plastics.

ML: So, what I am putting into a yellow bin? 

VV: Exactly, what you are putting into a yellow bin or a black bin, because there is also still a huge potential in separating better and more. The first thing is again the door-to-door collection, we need to put the bins next to the door for the citizens of Prague, but another thing is that we also need to get better at post-separating packaging and turning it into raw materials - that’s why Prague is currently opening up a tender for construction of “the state of the art” post-separation facility for plastic, metal and beverage cartoons which will have robots, AI and it will really significantly increase our recycling rates.

ML: We are talking about very modern, high-tech, intelligent, separating facility, which is able to take the mixed plastic waste from households and separate it into different polymers – some go to incinerations, some go to recycling. Is that correct?

VV: Yes, exactly. That’s how it works – basically you have different technologies that help to separate what you throw away into a different bin, to different streams - to PTE, HDPE, etc.- and then clean it from other non-plastic or different plastic packaging sources that do not belong there to these streams, bails it at the end. Then the waste management company Prague service, who is going to be the investor in this facility – they can sell it and that’s how they make business and that’s how they enforce recycling and of course that’s one thing and of course there’s going to be always one stream with packages that are non-recyclable or not even plastics, because people don’t separate at 100% correctly and that will go to the incineration in Prague. Our aim, and it's going to be hopefully in the very near future a reality, is that we will turn 100% of citizens' plastics into raw material or energy.

ML: That’s fantastic and as you said, the tender is out, so those facilities are going to be constructed? This is a real project which is going to happen?

VV: Yes, very soon.

ML: If I refer back to the original document and we have discussed many, in fact we talked about concrete projects which are reflecting on suggesting in the document and these suggestions were often referring to elsewhere in the world, in Europe, in different cities, which have got some sort of track record of successful implementation. One of the words that caught my eyes were repair hubs and circular shopping centers. Are we expecting to see something similar in Prague? 

VV: Yes, very much and this is the last kind of pilot within the key sectors we have talked about at the beginning. This whole strategy for repair, reuse, refurbish, especially with bulky waste, for example, furniture is something we are very much busy with and were tackling it from different perspectives. Firstly, we are turning 20 of our current collection yards where people just dump it and it gets destroyed, to reuse yards where the people have the chance to bring it undestroyed, so someone else can use it and the city can support this exchange. Then two other things that we're doing is that our aim is to create a re-use center in the middle of Prague that will serve perhaps as this second-hand shopping center in Sweden where local entrepreneurs that are busy with repairs or refurbishments can be present and show citizens how to live more sustainably.

ML: I certainly like the idea that this will provide the individuals with the opportunity to use their own consumer money to support these schemes. I like the idea that I can go to certain shopping center, where I know that whatever money I spent there is going to go into the companies who invest in innovative ideas - for example this shirt that I’m currently wearing is made from 15 to 20% of recycled plastics from ocean waste - I like the concept to be able to use my own resources to support these projects. However, we have talked about the Prague Circular Scan and about projects happening in Prague – can we spread this system, this transition to other cities in the Czech Republic? Can we suspect that Brno, Ostrava, České Budějovice, Olomouc, etc. will also adopt such schemes?

VV: I really hope so. The document is public, anyone can have a look at it and download it, so it can really be an inspiration to other municipalities, as well as the good cases of practice in other municipalities serve as inspirations to Prague in these days. What I should mentioned is that the general author of the whole scan product is this Dutch institute called Circle Economy and of course the potential for applying this scans around the world, or even in our region, is huge and I really hope that this will soon become a reality.

ML: Do you have any examples of another Czech region that was an inspiration for Prague?

VV: Yes, just yesterday I was part of this webinar, where different municipalities were talking about zero-waste strategies and the city Jihlava caught my interest because what they have done was to, first of all, do a lot of waste management strategies for city and citizens, but they have also done an arty exhibition with plastic waste, which was super popular, very interesting and kind of in line with what we do in Prague. There is a lot of inspiration.

ML: So there is a sharing of an intellectual ideas and best practices already happening here in the Czech republic... I know that you are also visiting other cities around Europe, particularly in the Scandinavia – what did you learn from these experiences? How do we compare it here, in Prague with other European cities?

VV: That’s a tough question, because there’s many ways to look at it. When we think of sustainability, I think Czechs tend to have maybe a low self-confidence for no reason, because when we look at the data, the citizen of Prague produces twice less waste than a citizen in Copenhagen. So in a way we live more sustainably – we have a lower carbon footprint, but on the other hand, the citizens of Copenhagen use much more bikes as a general means of transport than citizens of Prague. Where I see a difference between cities as well is this kind of hunger and drive for innovation and that’s I think where we have a lot to learn from others – maybe to be more bold.

ML: When you say innovation, is that intellectual innovation in terms of ideas or innovation in terms of facilities and infrastructure?

VV: I think Czechs are brilliant, they are very smart and we say they have “golden hands” (“zlatý český ručičky”) – they can really get the things done, but what I think they often lack is, firstly, the self-confidence. It’s the whole culture that sometimes, I am afraid, kills the whole innovation – I learned that in the Netherlands where I spent my student years, where the culture is towards any challenge or opportunities and people ask: “Why shouldn’t we give it a go?”, “Why not, let’s give it a try!”, whereas in the Czech Republic I feel like people are more skeptical and they ask “What is in it for me?” “Why should I give it a go?” and I think that the culture thing is number one reason that kind of hampers the innovation.

ML: Well, Vojtěch, I am very glad that you here are giving it a go and you are helping Prague with this transition to a circular economy - thank you for your work, and also thank you for coming on the show. I have a small present for you, which is in fact a t-shirt of our show “Let’s talk about it” – do wear it often and spread the world, because I think it is playing a crucial role in helping people understand are the goals. Vojtěch, thank you.

VV: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.

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