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Zero Waste Cities: three German cases committed towards a zero waste journey

The last few years have witnessed a global increase in waste pollution, with strong consequences on the planet and on human health. According to the World Bank, two billion tonnes of waste are produced per year between 7.6 billion people, and such numbers are expected to increase. Eleven billion people are estimated to inhabit the Earth by the end of the century, with an increase in the urban global population reaching 68%.

These data lead to analyse the immense amount of waste creation as a consequence of the current urbanization trends. Thus, the growing number of zero waste cities in the world demonstrates an improving commitment towards a greener future.

The topic of zero waste cities and circular economy practices have been covered during the first edition of the Zero Waste Berlin Festival celebrated online on the 23rd and 24th of September. A panel discussion, moderated  by Arjun Jamil, brought together three zero waste cities experts: Laura Grotenrath, circular economy specialist for the Berlin Friedrichsein-Kreuzberg transition to zero waste; Marc Delaperriere, founder of Zero Waste Kiel e.v.; and Marie Finke, project manager for zero waste projects at the Hamburg Senate.

The importance of zero waste cities

Some of the points discussed during the panel session, whose takeaways are reported in this article, included the concept of zero waste society and circular economy, the relevance of local and social aspects in the zero waste approach and the adaptation of international practices at local levels.The importance of a zero waste city is reflected in the opportunities that zero waste strategies present.

First, the implementation of zero waste approaches can help face the current ecological crisis also at the municipality level. When talking about urban areas and sustainable transition, waste management appears to be the most common topic to cope with.

Yet, the application of zero waste initiatives can support cities to deal with other ecological aspects.

Moreover, these approaches give the possibility to replicate the model of other cities and to consider international best practices, contextualising them based on local needs and using existing information and resources.

Zero waste cities bring together people and promote intergenerational work with local and neighbourhood initiatives: this is where the social aspect comes in. Zero waste municipalities strive to bring a positive impact at a community level, providing tools to engage citizens and facilitate individuals to have a more sustainable lifestyle.

The implementation of circular practices strives to minimise the production of waste, supporting the zero waste municipality journey with a more efficient use of resources and a sustainable economy.

Essential aspects of successful zero waste cities 

The concept of zero waste can be easily implemented on an individual or community level, but there are some aspects to be necessarily respected in order to reach sustainable goals. 

When considering a zero waste transition that involves an entire city, “local aspects should not be forgotten”, as stressed by Marie Finke during the panel discussion. This turns out to be a fundamental truth especially when sharing knowledge and best practices among diverse local initiatives.

Another critical aspect for a successful transformation is the collaboration between all actors of society. Knowledge sharing and productive implementation cannot happen without the participation of all stakeholders. Yet, our experts agreed on the challenge posed in some cases by the lack of clear and easy multi-stakeholder processes.

Among these actors the civil society plays an important role, and it becomes crucial to involve citizens in the development and implementation of new sustainable strategies while creating a sense of community belongingness.

Three examples of zero waste cities 

Within Europe, Germany is one the countries with most zero waste initiatives at the municipality level. With common visions and goals, the three cities of Berlin, Kiel and Hamburg have been brought on the discussion table at the Zero Waste Berlin Festival as examples of circular cities.

With climate change mitigation, waste management and waste pollution prevention as main goals of the three projects, several similarities have been revealed during the conversation between Laura, Marc and Marie.

Education was one concept mentioned by all panellists, who stressed the importance of educating young generations on waste prevention. Connected to it was the idea of circular constructions and its relevance for zero waste cities, as recently undertaken in Hamburg and Kiel to build zero waste schools by 2025.

An additional aspect, introduced when investigating the Berlin project and supported by all panellists, is the importance that information and knowledge sharing take on in the three case studies. Each municipality has its own needs and characteristics, but best practices can be applied elsewhere when analysing their possible implementations.

This principle is at the basis of the FORCE project, an EU Horizon 2020 initiative, that sees four European twin cities collaborating towards a sustainable journey. Hamburg, Copenhagen, Genoa and Lisbon, have been working on managing different waste stream types, with Hamburg leading the e-waste stream, to identify what works best and exchange practices among the four pilot project cities.

In particular, among the initiatives run by the Hamburg municipality there is the realisation of workshops and dialogues with citizens and policymakers, as well as the opening of second-hand popup stores and e-waste collecting points around the city.

A mutual standpoint was taken by all panel’s participants over the importance of zero waste policies: there is no doubt that legislation can facilitate changes while catalysing social engagement, and a clearer commitment in this sense is still needed. 

The intense 45 minutes-long discussion ended with a short presentation of the most common challenge our panellists face while running their zero waste city projects: finding collected information and best practices is not easy when a stable collaboration between stakeholders is not facilitated. 

Collaboration, knowledge and best practices sharing, citizens involvement, and local visions are at the core of successful municipality transitions towards zero waste.  Local policies and international legislations can facilitate the implementation of circular practices in the production and consumption stages, encouraging all actors of society to take on their responsibility and be an active part of the change.