Why regional authorities are the key to a circular economy

A circular economy is vastly different from a linear economy. When it comes to the resources that drive the economy, a linear economy is extractive whereas the circular economy is regenerative of its material source. The current way we run our economy is using resources up at an ever-expanding rate. Before resource shortages overturn the economy we need to transition to the circular use of materials. But how do we get to the circular model? This article takes a high-level systems analysis approach to explore possible pathways, and hones in on the role of local authorities.

Where is the organisation or group of people with enough agency to foster circularity of the economy? Which organisations are closest to the flows of material that make them natural bearers of the role? Is it corporations, households? How does the world work actually? As a biologist from the beginning, it took me a long time to understand the subject and others may have a similar problem. So this article starts with the basics, and takes it as simply as possible.

Understanding the main actors in the economy

How many types of organisations are there, and where do they get the stuff they use to make their products?

There are:

  • National Governments
  • Local Authorities
  • Firms of many sorts – some government-owned, some privately owned but all produce a service of some kind and work more or less the same way – with bosses and employees.

That is it! Now, where do they get their stuff? From Nature of course. We can identify two sources:

  1. The living, natural world
  2. The mineral world

Map the main flows between them

The main flows between these entities are:

  • Material (in Blue)
  • Information/work (Red)
  • Money (Green)

Now all you need to do is to map these flows into a simplified system map.

We will explore this map later, or you are welcome to browse it yourself here. We will use this map to ask the question of where the disconnects are that are stopping the circular economy, and where are the organisations that can take on the power of agency to lead the circular economy?

But first, a few basic questions.

We can ask what is appropriate to keep within the circular house, neighbourhood, region, nation?

The diagram above challenges us to imagine the scope of circulation that should be kept within various dimensions in order to enjoy the benefits of reduced transport impact and scarcity impacts. The table below gives us a start.
Heavy/largeLight/small
Frequently transportedMunicipal and regional e.g.
-Sewage
-Food
National and regional e.g.
-Knowledge
Seldom transported National and regional e.g.
-Large household appliances
All categories

Understand the difference between mineral and biological capital

Additionally to the logic of scale, the kinds of natural capital being circulated inform our framing of how the circular region should look. Natural Capital is divided into two as the diagram shows, mineral and natural. The table below illustrates some key differences.

Mineral (with the exception of fossil fuel)Mineral, Fossil FuelNatural
ExtractionMining.Drilling. Harvesting.
Extraction considerationsMining needs to be done in a careful way so as to not damage the area surrounding the mineSame as mining. Harvest needs to be done in a way that nature can grow back and continue to deliver.
Returning what is extractedMetals and minerals take a lot of energy to extract. When in waste they should be removed and stored as stocks for further use. They are never destroyed or downgraded. Landfilling is the least best fate for mined minerals.Fossil fuel once burnt is not re-usable and releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is a transfer from mineral to natural capital and should be restricted.Fibres degrade on reuse. Natural materials after use should be returned responsibily to living systems so the ecosystem can regenerate. Returning too much too fast results in pollution.

System maps can be useful if you take a step back and ponder them, let your mind wander over the complexity. You can focus on parts of the diagram like this, where we focus on mineral capital.

Relationship of mineral capital, firms and local authorities

All mineral waste – when it is designated as waste- goes via local authorities directly or indirectly as they have the responsibility under the law to see to it that waste is handled correctly. They have their own firms that do that. But notice that if we see minerals as a stock, then local authorities could build up a stock of minerals, taken from waste, for use by firms.

The situation with materials from the living world gets even more interesting as the extract in the diagram below shows.

Relationship between firms, natural capital, citizens and local authorities

The organisation with the closest and most numerous connections

The first thing to notice is that the government is greyed out. This is because it is a greater number of connections away. Citizens are implicated because they release carbon dioxide from their purchase of fossil fuel and this goes to the living capital. You can start to see the connections clearly. If firms did not sell fossil fuel to citizens, then they would not burn it in their cars. Notice too the proximity of the municipality in the diagram. In its relationship which is one of service provider and fee collector and authority it has the potential to manage flows of material between the other entities.

Notice also the question of stewardship of the living natural capital. You do not put iron back in the ground once you have mined it out. You return it to stocks for re-use. You do however, once you have taken living material from nature as food for example, put it back as compost or the living soil will loose its vitality.

How local authorities can oversee stewardship

So firms (under the scrutiny of local authorities) or local authorities themselves are the the main stewards of nature, soils, waterways, forests and meadows. In fact, by extracting natural materials from waste, the local authority has the raw materials for restoring and regenerating the natural environment as well as improving soil quality for food production.

Natural capitalMineral capitalFossil fuel
Stewardship of ecological status of all types of land in the region.

Ensuring ecological status of waterways.
Monitoriung performance of SDG and Planetary boundary essentials of nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and water cycle.

Collection and processing of all biological material left as waste. Uppgrading to biofuel, soil enhancement etc.
Oversee the collection and management of all mineral, metal and non-metal.
-Extraction
-Embedded in economic system
– In stocks outside the economic system

Managing mineral stocks for future use by firms in the region.
Oversee phasing out of use of fossil fuels and introduction of alternatives as well as measures to reduce transport demand.

Keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions in the region and the region’s carbon budget – including sequestration.

The diagram below shows a concept for the maximised use of biomass in a region/municipality. The driest fraction can be treated by pyrolysis (burnt with a minimum of oxygen) to produce biochar and heat. When returned to the soil, biochar effectively sequesters carbon for thousands of years and enhances the soil, especially when combined with nutrients. Burning biomass produces and heat and can be used to produce electricity.

Maximum use of harvested biomass

The wet fractions can be used to produce biogas and compost.

Circular Economic Incentives. Management responsibilities of local authority
Infrastructure– ensuring the best available technology application of infrastructure that drives the circular economy – this will encompass but not be limited to, water, biomass, energy, waste packaging collection etc.
Education – primary, secondary, tertiary and of local firms and citizens
Economy – local waste levies to encourage recycling at all levels
Entrepreneurship – support to circular business development and all types of local ownership
Monitoring – smart surveillance of circularity including planetary boundaries, SDGs and other goals
Purchasing – encouraging circularity through local purchasing
Circular culture –walking the talk though internal development
The circular home – encouraging the installation of circular economic systems into citizen’s homes and development of local entrepreneurs to service the installations
The circular neighbourhood – encouraging appropriate circularity in neighbourhoods for instance with citizens’ organisations that run tool libraries, local biomass collection, monitoring of ecological status and more.

For nations to embrace the circular economy, strengthening the role of the local authority – as one of waste manager, mineral stock manager, natural capital steward and enabler of circular economy businesses and circular economy citizen constellations- is key. And in turn for regions to strengthen the circularity of the home, neighbourhood and municipality.

Further reading

Article on what next after local governments declare a climate emergency from Resilience Brokers.

Nature-connecting human habit from a colleague in Gävle university

The neighbourhood revisited Greenbiz article explains why neighbourhoods are already working in the circular economy

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