Urban Transformation

How Kiel became a pioneering Zero Waste City, and what it can teach the rest of the world

View of sunset in Kiel, Germany.

Kiel's Zero Waste City plan aims to reduce waste by 15% per person annually by 2035 through over 100 measures. Image: Unsplash/Thomas Grams

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article was first published in November 2023 and was updated in April 2024.

  • Kiel has been certified as Germany’s first Zero Waste City.
  • Zero Waste Cities are working on plans to eliminate waste and introduce a more circular economy that reduces emissions.
  • In India, the city of Pune is working on a Project Zero Waste initiative with the World Economic Forum.

Waste is fuelling the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity and nature loss, the United Nations says. That’s why zero-waste living is a top priority in efforts to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.

The city of Kiel has become the first city in Germany to be certified as a Zero Waste City. What does this certification mean, and what can Kiel’s achievement teach other cities around the world?

Graphic explaining how the Certified Zero Waste certification process works.
Certified Zero Waste Cities like Kiel in Germany are driving projects to eliminate waste. Image: Mission Zero Academy

What is a Zero Waste City?

Zero Waste Cities Certification is a European standard created by non-profit waste elimination network Zero Waste Europe. It is designed to help towns, cities and districts in the region eliminate waste and introduce a circular economy.

More than 480 local authorities in Europe have committed to a zero waste vision, Zero Waste Europe says.

Kiel’s Zero Waste City plan includes more than 100 measures to cut waste by an average of 15% per person, per year, by 2035. It also aims to halve residual waste – waste that can’t be recycled – by the same date.

Homes, businesses, schools, public bodies, events and the wider waste system are all part of Kiel’s zero waste efforts.

Graphic displaying the amount of cities committed to the vision of zero waste.
More than 480 local authorities across Europe have committed to the vision of zero waste. Image: Zero Waste Cities

What zero waste actions is Kiel taking?

Kiel’s zero waste measures include grants of up to €200 ($210) to buy cloth nappies instead of disposable ones. “A child uses up to 6,000 disposable diapers,” the city says on its Zero Waste City web pages.

The city also gives out free reusable bags for fruit and vegetables at events, while public bodies are banned from using single-use items and a pay-as-you-throw system charges people based on the weight of the waste they throw away.

Another zero waste project in Kiel even involves turning waste hair from hairdressers into material that filters oil from water, UK newspaper The Guardian reports.

Image: @zerowasteeurope

Other Zero Waste Cities

Other Zero Waste Cities include Tilos in Greece, which has seen a 43% fall in solid waste per person. Zero waste initiatives in Tilos include recycling coffee capsules, batteries and textiles, and turning residual waste that can’t be recycled into alternative fuel.

In Japan, the town of Kamikatsu on the southern island of Shikoku made a “Zero Waste Declaration” 20 years ago, according to The Washington Post. Kamikatsu’s residents sort their waste into 45 categories and take items they don’t want any more to the local thrift shop. Kamikatsu also has a zero waste craft brewery, which makes beer from crops that would otherwise go to waste.

Meanwhile, Osaki, also in Japan, recycles around 80% of its waste and was able to avoid building an incinerator when the landfill site became full. Waste is sorted into 27 categories, of which 26 are eligible for recycling. The waste is compressed and sent to recycling facilities around the country. "We have to mobilize everyone to make a difference," said town councillor Kasumi Fujita.

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Zero waste projects at the World Economic Forum

In India, the city of Pune has introduced a Project Zero Waste initiative with the World Economic Forum to reduce waste and improve waste management systems. The city says less than 30% of its plastic waste is recycled and that waste management awareness is low.

The project includes workshops to raise awareness of good waste practices, and the introduction of better waste management systems in schools and colleges.

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Consumers Beyond Waste is another World Economic Forum initiative that aims to develop sustainable, affordable and appealing alternatives to single-use items.

“More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, instead polluting our planet’s landscapes and oceans,” the Forum says.

Cities will play a central role in testing and implementing reuse systems on the ground.

These companies are helping to build zero waste cities

Businesses helping cities drive zero waste agendas include RecyGlo in Myanmar. Its technology connects businesses with recycling and logistics facilities to help them safely process their waste, and uses data to show companies the impact this has on their carbon footprint.

In Bengaluru in southern India, a company called TrashCon Labs is using automated sorting systems to organize waste into wet, dry and metal components and recycle it into various products. TrashCon Labs also turns non-recyclable waste into a type of board that is then used to make furniture and other items.

CIRT – whose name stands for “Can I Recycle This?” – has set up a digital platform that enables companies to answer that question for themselves. Allowing them to identify what items can be recycled helps them reduce their waste levels, landfill fees and packaging costs, and pushes them closer to their sustainability targets.

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Another digital platform that helps with waste management is provided by Duitin in Indonesia. Provided as an app, it connects people who have waste that needs taking away with “pickers”, who are paid to sort the waste. This helps boost recycling, cut landfill use and boost the local economy.

A company called Green Mining in Brazil is also boosting employment opportunities with a programme designed to increase reuse and recycling of “post-consumer packaging” – any packaging thrown away after a product has concluded its lifecycle, such as toilet roll tubes or yoghurt pots. Three-quarters of Brazilians do not separate recyclable materials when throwing out their rubbish, Green Mining says, but it is changing this by sending out collectors on special tricycles to collect rubbish in areas where large volumes of post-consumer waste are generated.

All these companies are members of UpLink, an open innovation platform from the World Economic Forum that helps innovators scale up ideas that can help people and the planet.

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Related topics:
Urban TransformationNature and Biodiversity
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