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Burcu Tuncer: We are seeing that there is a need for practical tools for developing circular economy interventions

Burcu Tuncer: We are seeing that there is a need for practical tools for developing circular economy interventions

An interview with the Head of Circular Development – ICLEI

Burcu Tuncer leads the Circular Development team at ICLEI’s World Secretariat. She is a senior expert with 15+ years of sustainable production and consumption experience in Germany, Asia and MENA. She is an environmental engineer, who holds an MBA and MSc. in environmental management and policy.

Ms Tuncer, you were appointed as Head of Circular Development at ICLEI in the summer of 2020. What has your unit achieved in that, admittedly, short time?

With our team's appointment as the global coordinator for the Circular Development pathway, we first started developing a global strategy and work plan for the Circular Development in consultation with the ICLEI Regional Offices. We have consolidated ongoing efforts in our network that amount to more than 20 projects and initiated the seeds of a community of experts and leading cities as part of the newly launched ICLEI Circulars platform. The Circular Development pathway’s work plan has been recently approved and launched at the ICLEI World Congress.

The leadership of our new Vice President Mayor Arve, from the city of Turku, and her team has been also instrumental in defining the elements of our work plan. One main item that came up was the need for peer-to-peer exchanges both at the high-level and the technical level for spreading the existing knowledge and approaches. We are especially eager to spread the lessons from the Circular Turku project that has facilitated the development of a circular economy roadmap, which will be presented to the city council in the coming months.

We have also conducted a small survey of 54 city practitioners to understand the needs of our members in the network in order to prepare the right support package. We are seeing that there is a need for practical tools for developing circular economy interventions and finance facilitation for the planned actions.

In response to this need, we worked on a practitioners’ handbook for circularity interventions in urban food systems. We are planning to introduce more such practical guidance for other priority areas, such as urban infrastructure in the coming months.

Another necessary and important achievement has been the release of the Circulars Cities Action Framework that introduces cities to the range of circular economy strategies and actions available to them at the local level. This framework has been developed by us, ICLEI, in collaboration with the leading organizations working in the circular economy field, such as Circle Economy, Metabolic and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Having this simple (but not simplistic), the inclusive and consolidated approach is important to be able to guide local and regional governments with one voice and on a large scale.

Can you tell us a bit more about the recently launched Circulars platform that you mentioned?

ICLEI Circulars is a new global platform that offers cities concrete instruments and practical tools to kick off local and regional circular development journey. As mentioned above, it delivers on the mission we have as the World Secretariat Circular Development team to convene the ICLEI regional offices and leading ICLEI network members to embark on and go further in their circular development journey.

It is also a unique space because now we can find all ICLEI network strategy, priorities, projects, actions and tools about circular development in one place. ICLEI Circulars platform has been launched to act as a catalyst offering members concrete instruments and practical tools to take action in this field.

The regional Hubs will slowly grow accommodating the regional priorities and challenges, featuring the leading cities’ stories of transition as well as their needs to bring their efforts from end of pipe waste management solutions to more systemic approaches, meaning urban resource management. This kind of new knowledge, we hope will also be useful not only for bringing good practices forward but also to help funders set their strategic priorities.

The platform is accompanied with a free handbook on circular food systems. Why was this area chosen first as an example? And can we expect more practical guides for other circular economy fields in the future?

All steps of our food production and consumption practices have many environmental and socio-economic implications. For example, approximately 70% of global freshwater demand is used for agriculture.

We also know that almost 20% of the food available to consumers - in shops, households and restaurants - goes directly into the bin (according to the UN Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index). Access to food and a resilient food supply is also a challenge for our cities. Not all urban dwellers have access to healthy and nutritious food: in developing countries, extremely poor urban residents may spend 50% or more of their income on food.

At the same time, local governments are directly or indirectly connected to all stages of the food value chain. Hence, from food procurement and catering services in public facilities to organic waste and land use management, local governments can influence food systems across the value chain.

That is why we have chosen food value chains as an initial area of focus. It is an environmental and socio-economic priority area and local governments have the levers to enable a just transition to sustainable food consumption and production systems.

We are planning to introduce more guidance for other priority areas, such as urban infrastructure in the following months.

Three Hubs have sprung up as regional communities around the issue of circularity on your website. What are the main challenges to achieving a resilient circular economy in cities?

We have found that the overarching issue is how to move from concept to practice. Major obstacles are not technical, but rather related to governance and economy.

Putting circular economy on the agenda

  • Link to bigger issues: First of all, city and local governments are still struggling to build a connection between the potential contribution of circular economy practices to high-level sustainability priorities, namely climate goals, resilience and economic prosperity. Turku is ahead of the curve here has an inspiring story. Whereas, in the Global South, relevance to job creation and quality of life has yet to be established.
  • Find sector priorities: Secondly, cities depend on external experts to find out where to start out with practising circular economy. They want to have practical advice on planning their actions and capacity building for city technicians. (The usual focus is on improving waste management practices, while an urban-system-wide resource management approach is very rare to find.)
  • Solve waste, material flow data availability: Thirdly, when they intend to start with an analysis, like our current project in adopting the Circle City Scan Tool, they face issues with data access as well as sector-specific monitoring and planning tools.
    Especially in the Global South, lack of visibility on materials flowing through the urban space, especially as they are consumed by industries, is an issue. Waste composition data is often not available. (Consumption-based accounting is a completely new approach compared to sector-based emissions measurement.)

Developing actions

  • Engage with value chain actors, clusters of industries: Firstly, building connections across sectors such as agro-food waste to energy production is needed. In addition, connections with neighbouring municipalities (territorial clusters) are needed to make circularity happen.
    Local governments need facilitation support for this. (Governance support to facilitate direct collaboration is required as well as tools to map and engage relevant stakeholders.)
  • Involve informal sector: In the Global South, informal economic activities are a major part of production and waste management activities. While there are good practices and innovative ways of organizing, practical governance and financing models are in request.
  • Develop pilots: Thirdly, city practitioners tell us that they need technical support for facilitating multi-stakeholder project concept development as these processes take several rounds of discussions, consultations, negotiations as well as technical expertise.

Implementing and scaling up

  • Finance eco-innovations: In this space, facilitation of access to finance for early-stage eco-innovations and circular solutions that can serve cities’ climate goals and waste management goals is necessary. Cities also need to engage with impact investors for sustaining early-stage innovations that they help to kick start.
  • Reach scale with regulatory coherence: Secondly, for the pilot efforts not to become piecemeal efforts and to stay relevant in the long-term, coherence with national economic development and sustainability goals need to be established as reported by our African and Asian colleagues.
  • Get every city resident on board: Thirdly, for long-term impact, behaviour change remains a major challenge. Cities are struggling to find entry points to address that.
    Communities are seen as key actor. Guidance on how to engage community initiatives and vulnerable groups (especially informal workers) in scale has to be developed.

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