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Interview with Dr. Oriana Romano, Head of Unit Water Governance and Circular Economy Cities, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, OECD

Mrs Romano, the OECD is committed to the implementation of a circular economy, also in the food sector. In your opinion, what are the most important factors for transitioning to the circular economy? 

The OECD Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions supports local and regional governments in identifying enabling conditions for realising the circular economy. Key factors to make this happen are included in the 3Ps framework: people, policies and places.

People: The circular economy is transformative and implies a behavioural and cultural shift towards different production and consumption pathways, new business and governance models.

Policies: The circular economy requires a holistic approach that cuts across sectorial polices. What is considered to be waste can be a resource for something else. As such, the circular economy allows for synergies across policies. 

Places: Links across urban and rural areas (e.g. related to bio-economy, agriculture and forest) are key to promoting local production and recycling of organic material to be used in proximity of where they are produced, to avoid emissions due to long distance transport. 

The food sector is taken into account in several circular economy strategies (e.g. Denmark, Slovenia, Spain, The Netherlands) and is a key sector for 52% of cities and regions that responded to the OECD Survey on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions. There are several examples of initiatives, which make the food sector more circular in urban and rural areas. These initiatives range from reducing food waste (Groningen, Umeå, Ljubiana, Porto), promoting urban agriculture (Paris, Brussels, Guelph), supporting local food production (Umeå), improving the co-ordination between urban and rural areas (Valladolid), incorporating restaurants and the hospitality activities to these efforts (Amsterdam, Valladolid, Umeå) or producing organic fertilisers (Porto, Portugal).

Circular food systems in cities and regions are based on strengthening synergies across the food value chain from production to distribution and waste handling.

How does the OECD work with other institutions to transform the city's food system into a circular economy? How can governments and authorities be won over to these goals? 

The OECD identified three key roles for cities and regions to advance towards a circular economy, including in the food sector. As such, cities and regions can be promoters, facilitators and enablers:

- Cities and regions are promoters of circular economy strategies, by defining priorities, promoting a number of concrete projects and engaging stakeholders.

- Cities and regions are facilitators when they help direct and facilitate contacts, inform about existing projects, provide soft and hard infrastructure for new circular businesses. 

- Cities and regions are enablers by enabling conditions for the circular economy to eventuate. They set up incentives, infrastructure and catalyse funds. They promote communication and education. 

It is important to move away from a view that conceives the circular economy as optimising the present linear system: it is not just about using green and clean techniques for production or recycling waste. It is about changing relations across value chains and identifying cross-sector synergies. For example, in the case of food, organic industrial waste can be used to green polluting industries; collecting food from retailers and supermarkets can reduce food waste, while social, economic and environmental benefits can be achieved. 

Will you involve the public in achieving the goals? How can people play a role?

The circular economy is a shared responsibility across all levels of governments and stakeholders. Co-ordination across national and subnational strategies can help clarify concepts and definition, as well as identify targets. Collaboration across local, regional and national governments is important, for example, for adapting regulatory frameworks that are necessary for the circular transition. 

A wide range of stakeholders are involved in the circular economy. The business sector is a key player: the transition towards a circular economy will depend on its capacity to shift towards more sustainable business models (e.g. using secondary material, recycling, sharing, etc.). Citizens, on the other hand, can influence production with their consumer choices. 

The involvement of all stakeholders requires active, specific and tailored communication strategies. Information is not enough. Raising awareness about circular economy costs, benefits, challenges and opportunities is equally important. Stakeholders need to engage in projects in order to secure their buy-in, trust and acceptance. Different actors (business, government and civil society) have divergent objectives in moving towards the circular economy. For this purpose, it is important to motivate stakeholders towards common aims; create incentives and framework conditions for building synergies at the right scale and minimising future liabilities for society.