4th Informed Cities Forum: Are circular cities a symptom or a solution?

4th Informed Cities Forum: Are circular cities a symptom or a solution?

At the 4th Informing Cities Forum in Rotterdam, creating circular cities and production to achieve sustainability was a topic of intense discussion and debate.

The concept of circular cities is nothing new to the transition scene. In short, a circular system means that as a city produces waste, the waste should become a product itself that is ready to be reused or recycled, with this process being repeat indefinitely. The Informed Cities forum aimed to bring this concept to life by highlighting innovators in the region.


A selection of goods at TRASH XL

In the field workshop at Rotterdam’s craft supply/factory off-cut store, SCRAP XL, the forum participants saw how waste can be reused in action. After walking through boxes upon boxes of foam off-cuts and plastic shoe insoles coveted by art teachers and hipsters alike, two short talks prompted a lively debate between attendees on if circular cities are a solution to waste, or a symptom of it.

Ronald Amoureus of van Gansewinkel, one of Europe’s leading glass recycling companies stated that “waste is all to do with perception”. He claimed that 65% of all waste is now recyclable into new raw materials, but van Gansewinkel feels this could be improved. They’re now putting their money where their mouth is and have set up a “circularity centre” in Rotterdam to act upon this aim. The centre has been established with numerous other Rotterdam-based groups, and hopes to act as a hub for organisations interested in creating a circular system to meet and organise, with the aim being to find where “logistics, alternative raw materials and material flows meet”.

Césare Peeren of Superuse Studios, a sustainable design and architecture studio, agreed with the general sentiment of Amoureus’ talk. He stated that the “linear, efficient system of city creation is wasteful”, and we must echo the circular nature of the environment to create cities to last through new challenges. For example, Peeren informed forum participants that twenty-thousand wind turbine blades a year are wasted. This is an example of how a sustainable technology ultimately become waste, which is unsustainable. Superuse Studios reuses these turbines to create things like playgrounds or bus shelters, showing that recycling doesn’t necessary have to break things down to raw-material form for them to be reused in innovative ways.

These two speakers were part of Informed Cities “field-workshop” initiative, where attendees had the opportunity to visit one of six schemes and projects that currently operate in Rotterdam, and the people who make the change across the city. The ARTS Project prioritises this hands-on interaction as a way for researchers and innovators to understand the wealth and depth of initiatives embedded in our cities.

The evening programme for the Informed Cities Forum convened at the trendy BAR in the Hofplien area of Rotterdam. Once a derelict area of the city, it is now being filled with transitional sustainability initiatives and small, green, businesses.


Discussion at the forum’s fringe evening event at BAR. For more, check out @arts_eu

The conversation on circular cities continued with a short 20-minute panel on the topic with Leen Gorissen, a Transition in Action Researcher,  and Jonas Martens of the Better Future Factory. The two discussed how the perception of value is not the same as value itself, such as with many vinyl records being made from around 30% recycled materials, but old vinyl records being seen as essentially worthless.

Gorissen’s “Refill” project inverts this view by using old plastics to create filaments for 3D printers, with the aim of cutting down on useage of crude oil in the production of plastic for 3D printing. Ideally, a 3D printed object should be able to be melted down and reused as “ink” for future printables, creating the perfect circular production system.

The topic of built-in obsolescence was also touched upon: we wouldn’t need circular systems if we produced items that were sturdy, durable or repairable, instead of having to replace them every time one component breaks. Companies know it is environmentally unsustainable to trash a whole item due to one broken component, but it is far more profitable to sell items repeatedly than just once. Financial stability wins over environmental sustainability for many profit-driven companies. The concluding question the short, after-dinner discussion left us with a dark view on if the free market is capable of adjusting to create less waste.

Both the field workshop and brief discussion on circular cities at BAR highlighted a significant problem with the concept of circular cities. If we simultaneously reduce the amount of waste to become sustainable, but also rely on waste as a product, the circle will break. Waste as a product becomes a necessity instead of something to get rid of. For example, nordic nations and parts of the Netherlands import waste from The UK for energy. When The UK inevitably catches up on its waste reduction efforts, the sustainable energy systems in place become obsolete. With this, the circle is broken and we can no longer use this sustainable system.

As an idea reflective of nature, the cradle-to-cradle approach to resources is certainly novel. But it seems if we want a circle that continues, wastage or failure of a component of the circle is a necessity. When innovators question that concept and build products that don’t diminish over time, there is no grave to be reborn from. Without the waste, we cannot make products from waste.

The problem of being too good at too many things may be a new one for the transition movement, but innovators must quickly coordinate their projects if we want the circle of innovation to remain flowing. Opportunities such as the 4th Informed Cities Forum allow innovators to communicate and, hopefully, find the answers to issues like these.


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Miriam is a student at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She can be found at @ThatMiriam on twitter.

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