Cities and metropolitan areas are powerhouses of economic growth—contributing to about 60% of the global GDP, but also accounting for more than 70% of global carbon emissions and over 60% of resource use. By 2030 projections show that 2/3 of world’s population will be living in cities.

Cities major challenges today

  • Structural waste and economic losses. According to CSCP in Europe the average car is parked 92% of the time, 31% of food is wasted along the value chain, and the average office is used only 35-50% of the time, even at working hours. The waste generated through these ineffective processes brings about additional costs due to waste management and collection spending which increases pressure on municipal budgets.
  • Ecosystem degradation and negative environmental impacts. The growing population in cities causes significant growth in the housing and building sector, increasing demand for energy as well as for better infrastructure. The linear model in cities leads to air, water and noise pollution, the release of toxic substances, and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Consumer culture and lifestyles. Higher income levels and a culture of consumerism lead to more material consumption and more waste.
  • Growing inequality within cities. Especially in relation to consumption and production patterns an unequal distribution of benefits and burdens through urban provisioning systems, including unequal access to services like healthcare, housing, digital infrastructure and education, is a growing concern.

The vision of a circular city

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes a circular city as an urban system that embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions. It is regenerative, accessible and abundant by design. Circular cities aim to eliminate the concept of waste, keep assets at their highest value at all times, and are enabled by digital technology. They seek to generate prosperity, increase liveability, and improve resilience for the city and its citizens while decoupling the creation of value from the consumption of finite resources.

As each city is individual and different, there is no one solution for a successful transition. Starting from defining the individual USP each city has to develop their own vision of becoming a circular city – driven by digital technology, with access to high quality living space that is designed in a modular and flexible manner from healthy and reusable materials, a smart and sustainable mobility infrastructure, an urban bio economy with healthy and local food supply and local production systems for eco friendly consumer goods, such as textiles and electronics.

A circularity roadmap including the specific strategy with measurable targets, key projects and action items brings the vision into life. Mapping and documenting circular economy initiatives happening in the city would be the next step. The challenge is to quantify, measure and monitor the progress made. Organizations as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation or CSCP provide valuable tools, frameworks and project guides to help implement a circular strategy in urban structures.

The transition to a circular city needs to involve all actors and stakeholders. A clear governance and a municipal circularity program that includes urban management, policies & regulation as well as economic incentives are a powerful framework enabling the successful transition. But it definitely requires collective effort across the entire value chain, involving individuals, the private and economic sector, science and academia and the different levels of government and the civil society.

“Circular Munich” as a role model

Munich is the third-biggest city and the most densely populated community in Germany. It is considered one of the world’s major cities, has the second highest economic power among German cities and is a center of culture, politics, science and media. In 2019 the city was ranked on the 8. place in the European Cities SDG Index.

With the “Circular Munich” program, that includes climate protection measures for the energy sector, circular procurement programs and several pilot projects as for example construction waste recycling, significant successes have already been achieved.

As important next steps in Munich’s transition strategy the Munich City Council decided in July 2020 to go forward with the development and implementation of a zero-waste strategy – specifically focusing on the reduction of plastic waste – and with a dedicated program to transform the local economy into a circular economy.

A precise analysis of various parameters, such as the material flows that enter the city and leave it again either as recyclable materials or waste (urban metabolism), will be carried out. At the same time, the value chains and economic relationships within the city will be examined in depth to identify potential actors of a circular economy. The dialogue with stakeholders at all levels will be continued and expanded with the goal to develop a specific circular economy transition plan for Munich that is comparable with the one that was resolved by the City Council of Paris in 2017.

In the area of waste avoidance, Munich has already many measures of a zero-waste strategy in place: one-way ban, used goods department stores, recycling centers, environmental education, waste avoidance campaigns, waste reduction in administration, and much more. Driven by the European Waste Framework Directive, the environmental and climate protection as well as the resource efficiency in waste management shall now be increased even further.

Based on the following five goals, a strategy for the entire city is going to be developed, how residual waste in the city and in the city administration can totally be avoided:

-Sustainable public procurement

-Plastic avoidance in municipal facilities

-Dialogue with vendors and retailers

-Urban quality label for sustainable businesses

The great power of cities to sustainably transform society and economy

With its economic power and population density, Munich will serve as a role model for other German and European cities and communities. The power of cities to change and influence the sustainable transformation of our society and economy is enormous and is often still highly underestimated. The great thing is that in these urban microcosms, with concrete programs and measures, great effects can be achieved – both in the respective city and far beyond. After all, local changes also change the entire regional, national and international value chains and the interconnected systems as a whole – in an economically, socially and ecologically sustainable manner.

Writing by Sabine Rieth



United Nations (UN)

CSCP – Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production, founded by
the Wuppertal Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Munich City Council: Resolution from 02.07.2020

Bertelsman Stiftung

Ellen MacArthur Foundation