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The recipe for the 7 R’s, the solution for extending the life of waste in cities.

Is it impossible for the circular economy to be successfully applied to cities? At a time when over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and more than 60% of resources are used in big cities, some may think it is. In fact, the very definition of the circular economy shows that its practical application is as complex and varied as the cities themselves: “It consists of abandoning the linear consumption and production model, which is characterized by using financial resources that lose their value and are not reused,” according to Javier Carrillo, Professor of Economics and Company Management of the University of Alcalá.

Whether complex or not, it is certain that the circular economy has come to stay. As Carolina Ibáñez, Repsol Environmental Development Manager, said: “The circular economy is already not a trend, it is a reality. Society is involved in it and society itself is what is increasingly demanding a change of model, to be more sustainable, more circular.” In the case of cities, this complexity is obvious if we think about the variations in existing cities. As Ángel Fernández Homar, chairman of the board of the Circular Economy Foundation, said, “Every city has an idiosyncrasy. One in the north of Spain is not the same as one in the south. Nor is a city of one million inhabitants and one with fewer.” Other parameters are added to this, such as the layout of the city (whether it is very old or recent), the terrain, or some determining factor like the involvement of the public, companies, and the administration.

That is why, without there being a perfect recipe that can be applied to all cities, there is another solution that María del Mar Borrego-Marín, professor of Applied Economics at the University of Seville, defines as the theory of the “7 R’s”. What is it?

1. Redesign

“Up to 80% of the environmental impact is decided during the design phase.”

According to Javier Carrillo, redesigning something is “the most important phase in the circular economy. It is when up to 80 % of the environmental impact is decided”. This figure shows the importance that redesign has among the 7 R’s, and, in the case of cities, it is what takes place when drawing up the urban plan, when the inhabitants, and not vehicles, become the focus of everything. As Ángel Fernández Homar of the Circular Economy Foundation, a private foundation with which world experts, government departments, private entities, and social agents collaborate, explains: “The industrial revolution led us to believe that we were gaining in quality of life when we were traveling by car, so what we did was to adapt the city for vehicles.” Now, cities are being rethought with their citizens as the focus. “That makes us redesign traffic circulation, car parks, community mobility, electrification… It is like returning to the concept of what our grandparents had in small towns, of a city for pedestrians, of going to the corner store.”

A scooter on the streets

The centers of many big cities are being redesigned to accommodate this new mobility. In Spain, Barcelona is seeking to reorganize the city by limiting motorized traffic and giving the space to pedestrians and bike lanes, which have increased by 72% since 2015. Other cities like Madrid are restricting access to less polluting vehicles. The same trend is being followed in capitals like London, Berlin, Paris, and Copenhagen even though, in many of them, this type of new mobility “requires a redesign of the cities and this is not always completely doable since often the city has been built in a very specific way and there are limitations,” said David Blanco, a professor in the Department of Financial Economics and Accounting of the University of Burgos.

The limitations are fewer when expanding a city. According to Carrillo, to create ideal circular cities, redesign policies must be directed towards regulating durability and the possibilities of reusing, updating, and repairing all urban elements. In other words, for redesign to be inevitable and for it to focus on ensuring the other R’s.

2. Reduce

“The consumption, production, and extraction of raw materials can be reduced without affecting the development of a city.”

Cities contribute approximately 60% of global GDP. This high figure comes at a price: as the UN has noted, cities account for around 75% of carbon emissions and more than 60% of resource use. Can the development of cities be continued by reducing the consumption of raw materials? “The consumption, production, and extraction of raw materials can be reduced without affecting development; it is simply making more responsible use of them,” says Borrego-Marín, the expert from the University of Seville.

The idea is to reduce or replace the consumption that has a more harmful impact, something that, in the area of economic development, is advantageous because it saves on raw materials and costs. An example of this is some cities in the United Kingdom, which, as James B. McKinnon explains in his book “The Day the World Stops Shopping”, have been switching off or dimming the streetlights at night as a way to save. This change opened up a debate that was settled by surveys proving that the most common reaction was the sense of well-being derived from seeing the night sky.

3. Reuse

“A large proportion of products and waste can be used again.” 

Cities are the scenario for great wastage: “Only 12% of secondary materials and resources go back into the economy,” said Frans Timmermans, European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, in 2020. In contrast, experts say “a large proportion of products and waste can be used again”. Let's take a look at some examples.

A tree with oranges
  • New draft bill. The most recent initiative in this area came from the Council of Ministers, which, this June, adopted the draft bill for the Prevention of Losses and Food Waste, which establishes that, if there is excess food, first, an attempt must be made to channel it for human consumption by donating it to food banks and, if this is not possible, it must be transformed into other products such as juices or jams. If this option is also not viable, it must be used for animal feed and, in the last instance, for making industrial sub-products and being recycled to obtain compost or fuels.
  • Bitter oranges as biogas in Seville. The capital city of Andalusia has around 50,000 street orange trees that produce bitter oranges, a fruit that has no definitive reuse and is sent directly to landfill. With the idea of giving this raw material the longest possible useful life, the city has decided to turn its juice into biogas and, with this energy, to guarantee the energy self-sufficiency of its treatment plants and fuel city buses. And this is not all: the organic waste is turned into compost for the fields.
  • The water M-40 freeway in Madrid. The Spanish capital has created a circular system of underground pipes that distributes treated water for reuse in irrigating green areas and cleaning the streets and drains.
  • Excess hydroalcoholic gel. Non-profit organizations like Fundacion Valora try to prevent products from ending up in the garbage. This institution specifically provides institutions and care centers with excess products of all kinds. Among the materials available currently are 100 cordless phones and more than 100 cases of bottles of hydroalcoholic gel. Since 2014, they have received donations from more than 700 companies and have recovered around 3.5 million articles from 600 organizations.

4. Repair

“Repairs help preserve the value of materials for the longest possible time and bring about the idea of zero waste.”

For University of Alcalá professor Javier Carrillo, the aim of the circular economy is to “preserve the value of materials for the longest possible time and bring about the idea of zero waste”. This is done through repairs: “But we are faced with many limitations,” he complains. David Blanco agrees: “There are products that cannot be repaired or, if they can, it is not worth it because of the cost.”

Even so, in cities, projects have arisen that encourage consumers to learn to repair their own products. This is the case of the Repair Café initiatives, walk-in places with tools, materials, and a group of volunteers with the knowledge and skills to repair all kinds of artifacts. Or the more than 1,300 store owners registered with the Alargascencia initiative, who are mainly engaged in repairing and recovering objects. The same thing is happening with clothing. Ruta Dots is two dressmakers who travel around in their trailer offering clothing repair services and creative textile-recycling workshops. And the Nudie Jeans brand, which offers a lifetime repair service for its jeans.

“It is a question of using our resources as much as we can, trying to repair what breaks, extending the useful life of products,” explained the Repsol Environmental Development manager. “For example, if an electrical appliance breaks down, why not first try to fix it, see if we can repair it, before throwing it away or buying a new one? This would also apply to reducing food waste.” In order to be as efficient as possible when repairing or replacing, the chairman of the board of the Circular Economy Foundation says that the ideal solution is not always to reuse or repair, and gives the example of an electrical appliance that has low energy efficiency: “It is necessary to know what is offering me quality and appropriate environmental consumption,” he explains.

Repair workshop

5. Renew

“Right now, technology is not yet an ally, but in the future it will have no choice but to be one.”

The great number of companies in cities, and the growing use of technology, means that much of the waste that they produce consists of technological devices. When businesses or government departments renew their equipment, the old ones traditionally end up in the trash.

According to María del Mar Borrego-Marín, of the University of Seville, the technological level is where we can find more barriers to circularity due to planned obsolescence, which means that “a lot of technology is manufactured to last for a certain length of time”. Here is where the R of renew meets the R of redesign. “If we rethink things from the beginning to last longer, it will not be necessary to renew them. Right now, technology is not yet an ally, but in the future it will have no choice but to be one,” she said.

This context is where initiatives based on the circular economy come into play, like Reutilizak, which provides devices to schools, cooperatives, social organizations, and socially vulnerable families. The project has recovered 2,800 computers and collaborates with companies like Metro de Madrid and IBM.

The same can be done with the technology used by government departments. La Casa Azul is a company in Almeria that has taken 2,000 computers from public bodies. They check and format them, and expand the memory so that they can continue operating.


5. Recover

“In Ancient Rome, they were more advanced than our current system.”

What happened in ancient Rome was that cities equipped themselves by using part of their own waste, reusing the materials to build them, as the engineer and designer Arthur Huang told us in the documentary “Going Circular” (2021). As well as pavement and columns, the walls of buildings were filled with waste material that was reintroduced into the production process as a raw material. The materials were fragments of amphoras and floor tiles, as well as mortar and plaster, among other items. “They were more advanced than our current system,” said Huang.

Now, in Taiwan, this same researcher has built a nine-story structure using 1.5 million plastic bottles, which he collected in only two weeks. At the same time, researchers at the University of Tokyo created a construction material similar to cement entirely from food waste, such as banana and orange peels, onions, tea leaves, ground coffee, pumpkins, and seaweed.

Although on a smaller scale, cities in Spain are also following the trend of recovering materials. This is the case of the city council of Zarautz (Gipuzkoa), which has created a children’s playground manufactured using recycled plastic, and Molder Disnova, a company in Valencia, that uses rice husks to make slides and swing seats.

Palencia uses picnic benches and tables made from recycled polymer In its street furniture and La Rioja uses road signs created using discarded tires, which, according to the Directorate General of Traffic magazine, are more ecological, economical, and safe because, by being manufactured with light, elastic materials, with no corners or sharp edges, they cause less injury in the case of an accident.


7. Recycle

“Recycling will be successful if it is thought of as an intermediate step in the circular economy process and not as the end.”

More than any other R, recycling is where what government departments and the public do come together. In other words, the one cannot recycle without the help of the other. For the expert, one of the main issues is awareness-raising, plus the fact that the public needs to be able to do it effortlessly. For example, with containers located close to homes. There are also the incentives. Fernández notes that a tax system that rewards appropriate behavior on the part of the public may be beneficial, while there are countries that already reward recycling with initiatives such as recovering part of the cost, on taking glass bottles back to the sales point.

In 2020, Spain reached a recycling rate of 36%, two points less than the previous year and more than 10 points below the European average, according to Eurostat. Borrego-Marin says that this is still a “very small” percentage, considering that “it is supposed that recycling is well integrated into our society”.

Recycling will be successful, says Borrego-Marín, if it is thought of as an intermediate step in the circular economy process and not as the end. The link to the other R’s is undeniable. For example, with the redesign of products and cities, as, with only a small percentage of any mixed material, recycling is impossible.

Carrillo agrees with the idea that in Europe only 12% of the material resources used for new production, from recycling and recovery, while the remaining 88% “involves newly extracting raw materials, a good part of them imported”. However, Borrego-Marín defends the fact that the new PERTEs (Strategic Projects for Economic Recovery and Transformation) make waste management “almost an obligation”.


The seven R’s in a restaurant: The case of Kofradía-Itsas Etxea, the home of Basque fishermen

Reducing food waste and the number of miles traveled by using local, seasonal products. This is the intention of Kofradía-Itsas Etxea, created by the non-profit organization of inshore fish producers of Gipuzkoa (Opegui). According to its director, Miren Garmendia, it is “something more than a restaurant”.

The leading role in this project, which arose in the Basque Country in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, belongs to the more than 600 fishermen who use selective, traditional methods that do not harm the ecosystem or over-exploit the environment. They fish in some 80 inshore fishing boats, working in coastal waters and returning to port the same day.

“Now, at the restaurant, the anchovy season is ending, and we are also highlighting products like conger eel, a species that is found along the coast all year round and that often is not caught because it is considered of little value,” said Darmendia. Afterwards, she said, comes the time when the star is tuna.

The aim of the project is to have circularity. Some of the seven R’s are found in initiatives like the sewing workshops that give a second life to unused fishing nets, using all parts of the fish, and even the building in the port of San Sebastian in which they are located, which was provided by the Basque government and which includes a hydrothermal system that uses the thermal energy of the sea. They are also working on a project for photovoltaic panels that, when placed on the roof, will be capable of generating a good part of the electricity that they consume. Because of all of these projects, in 2022, this restaurant received one of the Sol Sostenible #AlimentosdEspaña awards that the Repsol Guide gives out in order to publicize the efforts of the restaurant sector and its decision to adopt environmentally responsible practices.


Publiished in El País