Pioneering circular economy initiatives: building sustainable communities for a better future

Maria Nikolopoulou, EESC member and member of ECESP's Steering Group, gives her views on ECESP, describing it as a successful initiative tasked with accelerating the EU's circular transition.


Pioneering circular economy initiatives: building sustainable communities for a better future

Mounting environmental challenges and resource constraints, the need for innovative solutions at all levels to foster sustainable development has never been more pressing. The idea is simple yet transformative: to move away from the linear 'take-make-dispose' model of production and consumption and shift towards a regenerative system where resources are reused, recycled and repurposed. 

However, despite undeniable progress we are still struggling.

The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform (ECESP) is a pioneering joint initiative by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to foster the circular economy. The Platform is a place for collaboration and innovation to propel Europe towards a sustainable future. 

The Platform originated in the EESC opinion on the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP). The European Union's advisory body advocated for a space to facilitate civil society engagement and cooperation between national, regional, and sectoral networks by exchanging expertise, information, and good practices. The two institutional partners officially launched ECESP during the first Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference in March 2017

Seven years after its launch, the Platform is a European success story. It contributed to exporting Europe's expertise in the circular economy worldwide. Through its range of activities, such as the #EUCircularTalks, ECESP enables stakeholders to engage in dialogue with their peers and policymakers, providing feedback on existing policies and contributing to developing new ones. 

What makes it unique? The EESC and the Commission are the facilitators of a common space where various stakeholders can co-create ideas, share good practices and share their failures so that the rest of the community can benefit from their experience, thus accelerating the transition to a circular economy. This is part of the innovation required if we want to do things differently. A bottom-up approach, connecting policy makers with the stakeholders who implement the policies. New ways of working together, new structures of governance and new people involved in the processes. 

Speaking about new structures, we need to rethink our cities and the relationship between urban and rural areas. We will need to move away from the current linear system where rural areas provide the natural resources and urban areas reap the profits. Short circular ecosystems will create more sustainable and resilient communities for everyone, no matter where they live and work.

Circularity in cities can help provide a healthy environment and wellbeing for their inhabitants. They prioritise waste reduction and management, sustainable urban planning - including the 15-minute cities approach - and the promotion of circular business models to minimise resource consumption and environmental impact. Meanwhile, circular regions aim to close resource loops at a broader scale, integrating circularity into regional policies, infrastructure development to meet the 45-minute region concept, and economic strategies.

The imperative of circular cities and regions stems from their potential to drive transformative change at local level while contributing to broader sustainability goals. By adopting circular principles, cities and regions can unlock a myriad of benefits, ranging from environmental conservation and resource efficiency to economic growth and social inclusion. For instance, by transitioning to circular business models such as product-as-a-service and mobility sharing platforms, TimeBanks, resource banks and repair cafés, cities can not only reduce waste but also stimulate innovation, create jobs and ties in city districts, and enhance economic competitiveness. 

Navarre is an excellent example of how circular economy initiatives can extend beyond the material cycle, such as recycling and managing waste, to include initiatives like eco-design and sustainable agriculture practices.

Circular cities and regions have the capacity to enhance resilience in the face of environmental and socio-economic challenges. By diversifying supply chains, promoting local production and fostering community engagement, these entities can become more adaptable and responsive to disruptions such as climate change, natural disasters and economic shocks. By building more self-sufficient and interconnected systems, circular cities and regions can mitigate risks and enhance long-term sustainability. 

However, tapping the full potential of circular cities and regions requires concerted efforts and cooperation across multiple stakeholders. Governments play a crucial role by providing enabling policy frameworks and incentives to drive the transition towards circularity. This can include implementing regulations to promote resource efficiency, investing in sustainable infrastructure, and providing financial support for circular initiatives. Businesses must also embrace circularity as a strategic imperative, integrating sustainability into their operations and supply chains while fostering innovation and collaboration. 

The bioeconomy is a key feature, where biological resources are not limited to traditional roles like food and fibre production; they also drive innovation in bioproducts and bio-based technologies.

A well-designed circular bioeconomy that does not undermine access to food has the potential to contribute to sustainability by utilising renewable biological resources and promoting innovative solutions. However, its sustainability depends on careful consideration of various factors, including resource management, environmental impact, social considerations, technological innovation, policy and governance, and circularity. By addressing these factors holistically and adopting a comprehensive approach to sustainability, the bioeconomy can play a crucial role in advancing sustainable development and addressing global challenges. The European Commission is updating the EU Bioeconomy Strategy, with the new version set to be ready in 2025. Civil society and the EESC will have a say on it. 

Civil society and individuals have a significant role to play in advancing the circular economy agenda. Through advocacy, education, and community engagement, they can raise awareness, drive demand for sustainable products and services, and hold governments and companies accountable for their actions. By empowering people as active participants in the circular economy, cities and regions can foster a sense of ownership and collective responsibility for building more sustainable communities. 

The circular economy is nothing new. Human activities have always functioned in balance with nature. It has only been during the past century that some people wrongly considered that exploiting ‘infinite’ natural resources as far as they can be exploited will bring economic growth and prosperity for all. Well, they could not have been more wrong. Resources are not infinite, the relationship between economic growth and resource use has stagnated and not everyone is prospering. So, let’s get back to basics, using our collective intelligence and technology, to correct past mistakes while there is still time.