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Circular plastic flows contributing to environmental and social resilience

Circular plastic flows contributing to environmental and social resilience

Vejle is one of the six pilot cities in REFLOW which is experimenting with innovative practices to foster circular economy. In REFLOW, Vejle’s mission is to make the case for circular plastic flows, demonstrating how circular innovations applied to plastic can unlock multiple opportunities, including in terms of new business models and enterprises, enhanced environmental awareness at both production and consumption levels, better services and products, and strengthened public-private-people collaboration. Vejle’s Resilience Strategy – born in the context of the city’s involvement within the 100 Resilience Cities initiative – and the more recent Climate Plan set the framework for the specific circular experiments developed in REFLOW, where the circular economy is essentially understood as a driver for environmental and social resilience.

‘’The focus on plastic within REFLOW came quite spontaneously’’, said Ann Louise Slot, Coordinator of the Vejle’s Pilot. ‘’The Municipality has invested efforts over years to establish dialogue and collaboration with diverse actors in the city and this has allowed us to focus on plastic easily, as there were requests to tackle it from different stakeholders across the city. On the other hand, environmental awareness is on the rise in Vejle and across Denmark; when REFLOW came in, we leveraged the momentum and created a mixed working group, including people from different municipal departments, for instance the Nature and Environment Committee, and organisations such as the Danish Design Centre. This also reflects the way Vejle has been steering the resilience strategy: multiple projects, diverse working groups but all linked strategically towards the objectives of the strategy’’.


The portfolio approach to trigger a systemic change in plastic flows

In REFLOW, Vejle’s approach to experimentation and discovery is based on a portfolio logic. Acknowledging that the shift to circular plastic flows requires a systemic and long-term change, the team has identified and is currently running multiple yet connected experiments, at different test-sites such as Sofiegården, Rema 1000 and Spinderihallerne. The portfolio includes experiments around circular procurement, awareness-raising and information activities, training, prototyping of new circular solutions for plastic and more. All the activities pursue their own specific objectives and targets, but with a general coordination approach that seeks connectivity and reinforcing dynamics of learning and discovery for the circular transition. The design and prototyping process is highly experimental and iterative, and overall based on evidence gathered through participatory research. Each selected activity has gone through collaborative brainstorming and co-creation, using the data harvested to feed the design process and identify activities’ scope, scale and characteristics.

‘’Place-based research and observation have played a key role in our journey’’ continued Ann Louise ‘’They allowed us to scope out more solid design criteria that we mainly defined in terms of ‘’circular potentials’’, contribution to city’s strategic directions, and citizens engagement. Moreover, the fact of working at a focused, small-scale level is important because it allows you to go deeper, also in terms of understanding what is already going on and establishing close contacts with existing initiatives and communities.’’

A design thinking approach to scoping and ideating a circular plastic portfolio

The implementation process in Vejle has followed so far three main steps, each informed by decision-making and design-thinking methodologies to prioritize activities and areas of strategic discovery.

The first step consisted on understanding the area. Sofiegården is a labour-class neighborhood with a mixed-aged and mixed-origin population. It is a neighborhood with people from 83 nationalities, with complex social issues. In this sense, experimenting in this area provided a chance to explore the potential of circular economy to tackle social sustainability. The understanding of the area involved both quantitative (plastic flows, number and location of waste management facilities, etc.) and qualitative analysis (interviews on the values, experience and everyday life of local actors), and the results were used to identify the main problems and potential, as well as the main test sites within Vejle.

During the second step, the initial evidence was presented to the Steering Committee Group. It was assessed under different criteria to define micro-initiatives that would become the final test sites of the pilot project. The criteria used for assessment included the scalability of the experiments, the connection of these sites to the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of REFLOW and the Municipality goals, and the existing engagement of their citizens. The portfolio approach informed the decision and prioritization of the test sites: Sofiegården healthcare centre (public institution), Den Gamle Gård (residential area), REMA 1000 (private company).

In the third step a specific portfolio of the 3 test sites was curated by the Danish Design Center team in order to transform the analysis into specific prototypes. Due to Covid-19, each of the test sites working groups were involved in an online working process. The initiatives defined locally were later scored by the Steering Committee Group according to their implementation potential. A budget and a timeline were defined for each of the initiatives.

Collaborative governance is a matter of hosting meaningful conversations

The local pilot team involves different stakeholders, including the Vejle’s Municipality and Danish Design Center. A specific person within the Municipality works as the main pivot point for most processes and activities, and also acts as a facilitator across different municipal departments. Key to Vejle’s governance model for REFLOW is a distributed approach where the different working groups at each test site have full agency and legitimacy in the daily management of the activities. The Steering Committee Group – consisting of representatives from all the local stakeholders – provides strategic guidance and steering to the working groups, participating from time to time to milestone meetings and supporting strategic decision-making.

Vejle’s overall approach to governance in the context of REFLOW is largely driven by serendipitous collaboration and community-building. As commented by Ann Louise ‘’My experience is that if your value proposition and ‘’why’’ is strong and clear, people are happy to contribute and be involved. Building personal relations is crucial, and the way you do this can make the shift from transactional to transformational relationships.’’

Towards impact: Challenges and Opportunities

The way Vejle organized its governance and decision-making process posed both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, having one main pivot point for the different tasks and activities, worked well in terms of building trust with the different stakeholders in the network, and also having one visible face connected to the whole process. The fact that this person was present in different departments of the Municipality (Spinderihallerne, Waste Management) also helped the process in terms of management of specific needs coming from these areas.

On the other hand, having one main representative makes things fragile and dependent in the pilot project and, in some moments, may overload this person with tasks. Nevertheless, this was to some extent counter balanced by the Steering Committee Group (SCG) and the test sites teams, who could share the responsibility of both making decisions and operationalize them in each pilot’s location.

  • Clear political engagement with the topic and the project from the beginning is key. Different political representatives were present in the decision-making process since the start of the project as part of the SCG.
  • Specific relationships and trust need to be built up with all representatives. This is a long and step-by-step process.
  • Circularity needs to be considered a transversal topic that connects different departments in the Municipality.
  • Using the global/local momentum around sustainability and circularity made it easier to connect the issue of plastic waste with different needs and stakes of local actors and institutions.