Whether the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package is ambitious enough is still under debate, but at least it leaves some flexibility for potential partnerships, industry-led and local government-led initiatives to shape the next economy.
Some cities are already seizing related opportunities: Berlin and London are sharing economy leaders, and the City of Amsterdam is conducting cutting-edge research for its transition to a circular economy.
Gordon Innes, the CEO of London’s official promotional and economic development company, London & Partners, recently wrote on why London has the opportunity to become the sharing economy capital of the world.
“As Europe’s largest technology hub with unrivalled access to talent, growth capital and international markets, we have an ideal environment for sharing economy businesses to scale and grow,” he wrote in Tech City News.
Innes explains that these businesses can benefit from national and local initiatives, including Sharing Economy UK, a trade group, and the Smart London plan, which in part aims to ensure that London “makes the most of new technologies and use its creative strengths” so the city can adequately adapt to its growing population. It is expected that London will be home to 10 million people by 2030.
He also claims that London has more sharing economy businesses than any other city in Europe. Examples of these include accommodation services One Fine Stay and Love Home Swap, peer-to-peer money lending company Zopa, car-sharing services BlaBlaCar and Liftshare, and driveway renting platform Justpark.
“This notion of making the best use of under-utilised assets such as spare rooms and driveways is another benefit of the sharing economy model and has the potential to turn London into a city of micro-entrepreneurs,” writes Innes.
Digital technologies, travel and tourism, and healthcare could be ideal focus areas as London continues to grow. Innes’ overview, however, only discusses the for-profit opportunities. Those who have embraced the sharing economy in Berlin and elsewhere might see this as a limited scope.
“To me, Airbnb is not really part of a share economy but rather a platform for people to rent out their spare room or, even worse, for investors to make a lot of money by renting out their apartment as holiday homes,” says Maike Majewski, who spoke to The Irish Times on Berlin’s sharing economy. She is an advocate for not-for-profit sharing models and recommends couch surfing or BeWelcome, a donation-funded, volunteer-run hospitality exchange network as alternatives to Airbnb.
The Irish Times touted Berlin as being “at the forefront of a whole new system of trade.” Food sharing, community gardens, couch surfing, collaborative workspaces, outdoor bookshelves, and “borrowing shops” are all initiatives you may have heard of or that may even be found in your city, but Berlin has all of these woven into a burgeoning peer-to-peer sharing economy.
Two ways that citizens of Berlin are food sharing include through community-supported agriculture (CSA), a structure where farmers sell shares of their harvest upfront and community members receive weekly shares of their harvest for the season (or year), and public fridges. The fridges are accessible by anyone, and operate on a “take what you need, leave what you don’t” honor system. They are typically maintained by volunteers, and can reduce food waste by redistributing excess to those who will use it. Germany’s public fridges are mapped at foodsharing.de, and they quickly caught on in Spain. State-side, students at UC Davisattempted to launch a communal fridge last year, but it was shut down by the local health department.
“Borrowing shops,” also known as libraries of things or “community cupboards,” are also doing quite well in the German capital. Bikes, equipment and tools are items that many own but don’t necessarily use as often as they could. Tool-lending libraries seem to be gaining popularity especially – they’re popping up everywhere from Australia to Israel to Europe and North America. If you’re looking for one in your area, Wikipedia has a list of them, but be sure to do a separate search if you don't see your city – some tool libraries are not listed there, such as Frome, UK’s SHARE and my hometown’s Hamilton Tool Library.
Meanwhile, a cooperative called Circle Economy is conducting research for cities that wish to explore opportunities for local circular economies. One such client is the Municipality of Amsterdam.
The research for the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area began in 2014 and is still ongoing. Circle Economy has mapped three key areas: renewable energy, food production, and water and nutrients. Currently, the research team is working on a systematic plan of action, which may include initiatives such as a metropolitan-wide smart grid, increasing production of bio-based materials from waste and residues, and natural grey water management.
Before the final report is issued this summer, stakeholders are being consulted and locals are invited to contribute their ideas.
Independent research organization TNO calculated that a circular economy in the Netherlands could yield economic opportunities of €7 billion per year and 50,000 jobs – in addition to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and water use.