Research challenges in circular urban supply chains

Implementing circular urban supply chains is a significant economic transformation that can only work if coordination decisions are solved between the actors involved. What are the research challenges in circular urban supply chains?

Creating regional ecosystems

On the one hand, this requires the implementation of efficient urban collection technologies, where waste collection companies collaborate with manufacturers, urban waste treatment specialists, and city logistics service providers supported by digital solutions for visibility and planning. 

On the other hand, it also requires implementing urban and regional ecosystems connected by innovative CO2-neutral circular city logistics systems. These systems must smoothly and sustainably manage the urban and regional flow of resources and data, often at a large scale and with interfaces between industrial processes, and private and public actors.

Lack of data

The impact of reverse logistics on urban transport volumes is not clear. Most statistics is only available on a high level, e.g., tons per year. Research using geo-based information on, e.g., sources and supply characteristics of urban waste is under development. Recent data mapping and analysis in Amsterdam have revealed several waste data collection limitations and gaps in current circular economy research and data analysis. At the same time, the available data already supports significant insights into the status quo of the existing waste system and provides opportunities for circular economy monitoring.

The functional design of local circular supply chains

The functional design of local circular supply chains serves as a blueprint for the distribution and coordination of the different roles of the direct stakeholders in future urban waste collection systems in which (common) goals and societal goals serve as motivation. A functional design includes a set of (cross) functional activities, mutual data exchange, urban and regional logistics nodes (and cost-modeling the network), a method of planning and control (and supporting AI-ICT systems for managing the network), and the governance structure as building blocks for collaboration. These result from different stakeholders’ intentions, opportunities, risks, and mutual relationships in a new system, which emerge in stakeholder analyses (e.g., using Agent-Based Modelling (ABM) or fuzzy logic to simulate and identify common and conflicting interests).  

Product design

A higher value use of secondary materials requires improvements in product design, good separate collection points or facilities, opportunities for high-value application, and steering for that. Some parts of the products are currently designed, so recycling for application as a secondary material is difficult, or it takes a lot of energy to recover some materials. Therefore, it is necessary to establish closed-loop (urban) supply chains to recover the materials needed for recycling or upcycling. Circular supply chains must be designed to retrieve these values and mitigate the risks.

Urban collection points and repair centers

Urban collection points and repair centers must be strategically positioned to make this feasible and, very significantly, attractive for consumers (with the right incentives) and integrate the concept of smart cities. How can city logistics (cost) modeling support the development of these urban collection points and repair networks? What are the concepts of planning and control (including ICT-support and control towers) to support operational excellence and tactical and strategic planning?

Sustainable waste transport

Besides waste transport (both urban and long haul) and infrastructure cost minimization for urban collection points and urban hubs, future smart waste reverse systems must support the reduction of CO2 through the efficient deployment of zero-emission waste collection vehicles. New urban waste collection initiatives and the new roles of stakeholders in collaboration form an integrated design for collaboration (or maybe only for collection as a first step). The functional design serves as a blueprint for the distribution and coordination of the different roles of the direct stakeholders in future urban waste collection systems in which (common) goals and societal goals serve as motivation. Relationships between the circular economy and space requirements are critical in the network’s design for land-use planning.


Collaboration results from intentions, opportunities, risks, and mutual relationships of different public and private stakeholders in a new system, which emerge in stakeholder analyses. How can we use stakeholder analysis, e.g., Agent-Based Modelling (ABM), to identify common and conflicting interests? How can a collaboration framework support the needed systemic approach? How can we link city logistics concept to ecosystem development?

Reverse sales and operations planning

Circular supply chains will ‘feed’ downstream large recycling and upcycling ‘factories’ that often require large and predictable volumes for many years. How do we organize for reverse ‘sales and operations planning’ and the resulting strategic, tactical, and operation capacity planning of partners in the circular supply chain to secure resilience in ‘feeding’ recycling and upcycling downstream?

Research Programs in Europe

In recent years, multiple European research projects have begun to address these city logistics research questions:

  • Circular Construction in Regenerative Cities (CIRCuIT) is a collaborative project from 2019-2023 and involves 31 partners across the built environment chain in Copenhagen, Hamburg, the Helsinki Region, and Greater London.
  • The European Community of Practice for Hubs4Circularity (H4C) connects actors from industries, regions, and cities; H4C initiatives and research and development organizations are interested in sharing knowledge, experiences, tools, and materials to progress faster towards industrial and industrial-urban symbiosis and circular supply chains.
  • The LINear to CIrcular Transition (LINCIT) project focuses on developing knowledge, insights, and tools to guide companies with linear supply chains to a circular business ecosystem and organize logistics and operational processes.
  • In the Urban Upcycling project, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUS), together with local SMEs and non-profit companies, municipalities, industry association CBM, IKEA, and various knowledge partners, is investigating how upcycling of waste streams can take shape in an urban context.
  • The Dutch Logistics in the Circular Economy Living Lab (LogiCELL) project aims to specify further and address the logistics challenges for reuse and recycling operations.
  • The CINDERELA project aims to develop a new Circular Economy Business Model (CEBM) for using secondary raw materials (SRM) in urban areas.
  • REFLOW is an EU H2020-funded project from 2019 to 2022 that seeks to understand and transform urban material flows and to co-create and test circular and regenerative solutions at the business, governance, and citizen levels.
  • geoFluxus BV., a spin-off company of the Delft University of Technology, works with urban regions in the Netherlands to build a Circular Economy Monitor.

Walther Ploos van Amstel.

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