Blog: Circular Towns

The Welsh centre’s recent webinar supported by the Welsh Government investigated the concept and outcomes of ‘Circular Towns’. Here Brian Mayne, Chair of CIWM Cymru Wales recounts some of the highlights.

Before the arrival of Covid 19 town centres across the country faced severe challenges to their survival. These difficulties because of the economic and health impacts of the pandemic now are ever starker and are unlikely to let up. A panel of experts that consisted of;

  • Yvonne Murphy, ICE Wales Cymru[1] Chair
  • John McCrory, Repair Café Wales[2]
  • Dafydd Gruffydd, Menter Mon[3] (Anglesey)
  • Eifion Williams, Circular Economy Wales[4]

considered how a circular economy can respond to these problems and develop our towns, by bringing all sectors of the community together to deliver significant, integrated and meaningful improvements to our high streets, whilst protecting their individual characteristics.

The panel was joined by David Warren, Head of Circular Economy Policy Development, in the Welsh Government. David has been responsible for delivering the consultation on ‘Beyond Recycling’[5]: the strategy to make the circular economy in Wales a reality.

Following the introductions, the audience were asked what they considered a circular town was. Interestingly the majority of the audience (55%) considered that it was a ‘Good concept but requires refinement in terms of definition (and scale to have a meaningful impact)’ with only 15% not understanding what they were.

Following the poll, David provided examples in Wales and internationally of how towns are adopting the circular economy resulting in changes to how businesses operate and in their design and layout, stressing the opportunities that this can provide economically, socially and environmentally.

Eifion was the first of the panel to address some of the issues raised by David and respond to the poll. He set out his views on the importance of using a place-based approach, to nurture the development of the circular economy at a local level emphasising that collaboration is key and explained that this is a journey that we are all on and should be seen as such.

Yvonne picked up on the theme of infrastructure and the changes created by the pandemic set out by David in his presentation and cited the impact on the supply and demand on services such as transport and utilities that could lead to potential redesigning of our urban spaces. Yvonne also reiterated the themes picked out by David and Eifion that the changes we have faced allow us an opportunity for people to see and use what is local to them. This seamlessly led to the next poll which asked the audience what they thought a circular town should include.

Whilst all of the potential responses received support, ‘the provision of re-use, refill, rental & repair services’ were voted for by most of the audience (97%). This is in keeping with the Beyond Recycling consultation which acknowledged that ‘prevention and re-use are key elements to achieving a circular economy’. John was enthused by the response of the delegates and explained that he would like to see permanent repair facilities a fixture in all town centres.

Dafydd highlighted that the poll presented several solutions but explained we should challenge ourselves by identifying the problems we are trying to solve and then come up with answers. He proffered the example that if we want to look at refill then a solution for one place could well be different from another. Getting people to not think about solutions but what are the problems we are trying to resolve was key in ensuring the communities take ownership and deliver creative results.

Eifion proposed his vision of a circular town and listed the types of services that should be offered. They included a one-stop-shop green shed[6] providing skills, services and business incubator units for activities such as re-upholstery, upcycling and mending, a sustainable information centre, a community fridge[7] where people could exchange surplus food, organics recycling so that the composted materials can be utilised by local farmers, starter packs for homeless people using reused and repaired items, a precious plastic unit[8] transforming plastic waste into new products, a zero-waste school[9] and that the wealth created from such services should stay within the community through a complementary currency system, such as CELYN[10]  as developed by Circular Economy Wales. CELYN is a means for SME’s to trade surplus assets with each other, acquiring what’s needed whilst increasing liquidity, inter-connectivity and resilience for enterprises.

Yvonne picked up on the response around the ‘integrated information and communication technologies’ to enhance operations and services which received 65% of the votes, highlighting that the concept of smart cities[11] which use new technologies (usually Information and Communications Technology) and data as the means to solve city’s economic, social and environmental challenges being applied to towns or elsewhere. Mentor Mon has been active in this area working with Gwynedd Council and Glynllifon Agricultural College to show how the Internet of Things could help solve some of the problem’s rural areas face. Local tech developers and students have worked together, to turn the Glynllifon estate into a “Digital Playground”[12] resulting in a number of sensors placed around Glynllifon’s extensive grounds which, for example, can send an alert if a litter bin needs emptying. This provides operational staff more flexibility to schedule the emptying of bins when they are at their optimum fill level instead of being on a fixed emptying schedule.

With general agreement on what circular towns/spaces could and should provide including the process of delivering them the next poll looked at what the Welsh Government could do to support their development.

Delegates once again generally supported all of the solutions identified however creating a specific funding source was seen as the most important (77%). Dafydd felt that any funding scheme should be nimble and dynamic and evolve. It should allow for failure and provide lessons learned. Eifion identified any fund should be open to all. David highlighted that Welsh Government have committed £90 million through the Transforming Towns package[13] which includes measures to increase footfall by making sure the public sector locates services in town centre locations, tackle empty buildings and land to help bring them back into use, and greening town centres. David went onto give examples of the successes of the scheme and highlighted the pioneering role of communities in delivering circular solutions and questioned whether a specific fund is needed or would it be better to mainstream into the existing funding available to town centres. John picked up on the issues of ‘Increasing education and training’ which 69% of the audience considered important and the 73% received for ‘awareness raising and capacity building’. He explained that Repair Cafes already provide this support by teaching people the skills they need to fix their broken household items, thereby increasing the number of people who are likely to undertake their own repairs potentially extending the life of products. In addition, they are fundamental to delivering zero waste which 84% of the audience in the previous poll identified should be an ambition of any circular town.

A question from the audience to the panel was ‘What criteria would you set that a town would need to satisfy to be ‘Circular’? Yvonne responded by setting out a practical example of her work in Totnes protecting properties from flood risk which included community and ecological benefits by working sympathetically alongside residents and businesses as a reference for any criteria for a circular town. Highlighting, in particular, the ‘incredible edible‘ scheme where fruit, herbs, nuts, vegetables and edible flowers are grown in public and unused spaces for everyone to share that was incorporated into the flood defences. Yvonne explained that community benefits should form the bedrock of any criteria and that the town itself could measure whether they had been successful or not. Dafydd was unsure that there should be set criteria and used the example of Bethesda whose community started with a local hydro scheme which enabled householders to benefit directly from a renewable energy project in their area. He explained that you could as a criterion to measure success use the amount of power generated but the success was far more than that. The scheme was about empowering the community, based on the original project they had developed a raft of community initiatives and therefore establishing criteria wasn’t necessary. He also questioned the benefits of whether a town needs to be identified as circular as it was unlikely to motivate inhabitants to deliver circular solutions. David acknowledged that several towns whilst not identifying themselves as circular have developed measures to evaluate the benefits of delivering circular solutions. He explained that Peterborough has created a monitoring framework designed to measure the outcomes of the city becoming circular[14]. It was also highlighted that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation[15] had developed Circulytics[16] a circularity measurement tool for companies aimed at supporting an organisations transition towards the circular economy, regardless of industry, complexity, and size. Eifion recognised in order to measure you need a benchmark. He outlined that whatever measures are used should ensure that well-being is a key element and highlighted his organisation’s brochure ‘Wellbeing at the heart of building the circular economy in Wales’[17] which outlines the key themes that support the circular economy and wider sustainability and wellbeing.

The next poll looked at the challenges of delivering circular towns with 76% of the audience identifying that consumers, businesses, politicians were ‘unaware of the benefits’.

David highlighted that circular towns offer many benefits and importantly provide a framework to adopt a more resilient and inclusive economic model that supports well-being, increases resilience and commercial and social business. He also outlined how a circular economy approach offers a valuable framework that can contribute to reduced carbon emissions from materials while at the same time building an economy that is more resilient to climate change and its impacts. Beyond recycling will play a major part in increasing the awareness of the benefits of the circular economy to all sectors of the community.

Eifion picked up on the response that ’it was difficult to organise and maintain’ selected by 55% of the audience, but refuted this and highlighted his research on the work of social enterprises who had been delivering and operating a range of services in welsh town centres for many years.

The final poll asked the audience what they thought were the opportunities for developing a circular towns initiative with 84% believing that it provides opportunities to redesign our towns sustainably and 74% agreeing that it promotes a culture of cooperation and knowledge exchange.

Yvonne in her response expressed the opinion that we ‘should never waste a crisis’ and explained that undoubtedly our towns and cities will change in the future in their design and use. An earlier poll identified that 85% of the audience believed a circular town should provide ‘sustainable transport and adaptable buildings. Yvonne provided an example of the latter in action and highlighted the Tramshed[18] in Cardiff, also referred to in David s presentation. This is a collaborative space where start-ups, scaleups and enterprises come to work, collaborate and innovate with flexible breakout areas and offices. John explained that initiatives like the Repair Cafés can help in revitalising town centres by increasing footfall by attracting consumers to have household items fixed.

Before ending the webinar, the panellists were asked What circular Christmas present they will be giving to someone this year’, but I have omitted their responses just in case the recipients are reading this blog!

In conclusion, it was agreed that our towns need to adapt to survive and prosper in the future. To do this they need to embrace all sectors of our community and offer a range of commercial, cultural, community and civic services and buildings that enrich our everyday lives. The panellists identified that this can be achieved and provided several examples of what is being done now and what can be delivered in the future and agreed the way forward should be through collaboration, communication and creativity.


Author: Brian Royson Mayne

Brian is the chair of CIWM Cymru Wales. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. He is also a Chartered Environmentalist and recognised by the International Solid Waste Association as an International Waste Manager.




















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