Defining the circular economy from the bottom-up

The concept of circularity is supported by diverse definitions, opinions and meanings. Read about REFLOW’s approach

The Circular Economy seeks to replace the traditional linear and unsustainable model of product-in, trash-out, towards a system that employs the notions and functions of reuse, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, among other circular initiatives.  

At the supranational level, the EU has pushed forward several initiatives to spur and accelerate the transition among its Member States in the past decade. These top-level initiatives have continued to increase and gain momentum over the last few years alongside the growing definition the concept of Circular Economy.  



The Push for Circular Economy 

A circular economy is an alternative to the today dominant linear industrial production model. By repurposing material flows that would traditionally go to waste, circular models can serve to generate positive societal and environmental impact. This meets the needs laid out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, which made clear the importance of shifting towards sustainable growth via a ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon economy that decouples growth from the use of resources’ (European Commission 2011). The political push for circularity culminated in the Action Plan for the Circular Economy by the European Commission in 2015. It provides detailed proposals for the Circular Economy on the basis of supporting studies which suggested that improving resource efficiency along value chains could reduce overall material inputs by 17–24% by 2030, save up to €630 billion per year for European industry, and a potential to boost EU GDP by up to 3.3% by creating new markets, products and jobs. 



A collaborative, bottom-up approach to understanding the circular economy

Built upon the foundation of promoting a bottom-up collaborative approach to Circular Economy among the REFLOW stakeholders, the REFLOW project capitalises upon the diversity and multi-disciplinary backgrounds of the actors that make up the REFLOW DNA.  

REFLOW seeks to redefine and understand Circular Economy from a bottom-up perspective, paying attention to the mobilisation and work of citizens and social innovators in their efforts to bring new circular solutions and business models in their everyday urban life.  



What does Circular Economy mean for the REFLOW cities?

In creating the REFLOW Vision it became clear that the different worldviews and perspectives held by the REFLOW stakeholders influenced how each actor understands and gives meaning to the Circular Economy. A shared vision of the ideal circular and the regenerative city requires a shared understanding of Circular Economy. We conducted a survey across the REFLOW network to articulate the many ways we define the Circular Economy. Below lists the seven definitions we use to frame the Circular Economy.


The Seven Definitions of Circular Economy in REFLOW 


  • Holistic  

Circular Economy is a systemic change. Change is required at all levels of economic and social life in order for it to make a difference.  


  • Behavioural

Circular Economy is a matter of changing our behaviours and habits. It is what shaped our individual and collective behaviours. 


  • Resource-Based 

Circular Economy is about changing our perception of waste to the idea of it as a primary resource.  


  • Governance  

Circular Economy is about a change in the hierarchical model of governance. Bottom-up governance is necessary for the Circular Economy.  


  • Technological 

Circular Economy is a tool and instrument to multiply the impact of already existing projects.  


  • Business  

Circular Economy creates new opportunities for business and boosts the economic and social role that businesses play.  


  • Challenges   

Circular Economy offers us solutions. It is a means to alleviate the problems caused by globalization.  


With solutions for environmentally and socially sustainable growth in high demand, the concept of the circular economy is gaining political ground in the EU. How can circular models be implemented and what could a circular economy look like in practice? The REFLOW project aims to provide pragmatic approaches, tools and practices that align market and government needs to create favourable conditions for a circular transition. The six European pilot cities involved in this project each contribute unique circular approaches and give a glimpse of what a circular future may hold. 



The Understanding of Circular Economy in Reflow 

As part of EU Horizon 2020, the REFLOW project helps to explore and implement promising circular solutions in Amsterdam, Berlin, Cluj-Napoca, Milan, Paris, and VejleCovering both large and small cities, in Europe’s centre, Scandinavia, southern Europe, and in one of the newer member states of the EU, Reflow shines a light on how Circular Economy can be understood and implemented in various contexts. Although all pilot cities seek to co-create and develop circular economy strategies, each city has chosen a different problem to address.  



Amsterdam: Old Jeans as a Resource 

The city of Amsterdam formulated a circular strategy in the year 2019 with the vision to be a thriving, regenerative, and inclusive city for all citizens while respecting planetary boundaries. As a pilot city in REFLOW, it focuses on the ways in which textiles are discarded and reused, and on how textile waste can be brought back into the material flow. In Amsterdam alone, households, the main consumers of textiles, are estimated to have built up 1400 tons of textile stock. By supporting more diverse strategies for the collection of textiles, the project can provide more textile stock to recycling industries and increase the demand as well as the supply of recycled textile. This process involves raising awareness and inducing behavioural change among citizens, engaging with designers and the textile industry, and providing digital solutions to trace the lifecycle of textiles.  



Berlin: Heating the House with Industrial Waste 

In line with the Berlin Energy and Climate Protection Programme 2030, the REFLOW project pilot Berlin aims to reduce CO2 emissions and increase energy efficiency by repurposing the waste heat using water. Waste heat is a by-product of processes and machinery that use energy. The part of consumed energy transformed to heat, however, is often wasted. By using the existing system of underground water pipes, the heat can be re-channelled. According to a public utility in Berlin, this could unlock a potential of up to 360 megawatts. To enable wastewater heat to be used more effectively, the project aims to raise citizen awareness and help connect waste heat generating and consuming properties. The project will, among other things, installing waste heat solutions into properties as a showcase to the public and establish a database that enables consumers and providers of waste heat to reduce the time needed for stakeholders to request and receive advice about the implementation of waste heat technology. 



Cluj-Napoca: Circular Heat and Energy 

The Cluj-Napoca Pilot focuses on reversing the city’s increasing energy consumption and waste by introducing more efficient and circular solutions concentrating on district heating and electricity usage.  To achieve this ambitious end, the pilot seeks to introduce circular business models and raise awareness among the general public and societal stakeholders. The project addresses these goals by engaging with governance, network and policy, facilitating technological development and fostering capacity building, engagement, and education. 


Milan: Traditional Markets and Circular Innovation 

The Milan Pilot city seeks to utilize circular business models and sustainable tech solutions to redefine the logistics, transformation, and conservation of food in local municipal markets and address the risks of food insecurity and climate change. By turning local markets from linearly organized sites of sale and disposal into circular hubs for recyclable materials and food, the project hopes to increase in inside-the-city production. Thus reimagined, markets become sites where new ideas of how to manage agricultural food can be created in collaboration between public and private stakeholders, for the benefit of local economic life. More, the project hopes to connect communities around the city and raise their awareness of how local food is produced and how food waste can be avoided. 



Paris: Recycling a Trade Fair 

The Paris Pilot focuses on circular ways of managing the material waste produced from major events that take place regularly in the city. Event waste such as wood, plastic, packaging, construction material, and demolition waste is a hazard to human health and natural life as well as a major logistical challenge. The Pilot wants to address this challenge by creating a tracking system to coordinate the use and reuse of materials involved in the trade fair sector. Initially, the lifecycle of event waste will be observed and mapped to produce ideas and solutions on how to best make its management more circular. The goal is to develop business models that allow for the collection of waste which will be either directly reused in similar events or upcycled for use in other manufacturing processes. These efforts shall not only benefit the municipality but, in the long-term, act as a scalable model at the EU level to inspire circular practices and regulatory frameworks for waste. 



Vejle: Managing Plastic Waste 

The Danish Pilot city Vejle has set out to tackle plastic waste by developing circular economy solutions for the reuse, reduction, and recycling of plastics. To achieve this goal, the pilot will explore and map plastic waste in various sites across the city. Based on the observations about how plastic is used and disposed of, circular strategies and solutions enabling the use of plastic as a resource will be developed in close collaboration with local partners. By raising awareness and knowledge on the topic of plastic waste and its circular management, the project hopes to include citizens and organisations the shared effort to reorganize plastic waste in the city.  


Andrea Beye

Doctoral Researcher for Copenhagen Business School

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