A circular economy means a lot more than recycling.
By Joe McCarthy
A circular economy functions as its name suggests — resources and materials within the economy are reused, round and round, as needed.
In the past, communities, by default, organized circular economies because access to natural resources was limited by geography. People had to reuse things, whether it was clothes, old metal, or plant scraps. But during the Industrial Revolution, as colonial powers exploited other countries for wealth, this baseline circularity was blown open, leading to linear economies that relentlessly gobble up and discard resources.
In the current linear system, resources are used to make products that turn into waste. Returning to a circular economy would mean taking that end stage of waste and bending it back around, enabling it once again to be a resource.Email Now:G20 Nations: Act Now for Countries on the Frontline of the Climate Emergency21.870 / 50.000 actions takenMore Info
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On a local level, this seems simple enough. But in the context of our sprawling, global economy, where supply chains can span dozens of countries and companies plunder the earth’s finite resources at ever-faster rates, it requires a dramatic transformation in the way human society operates.
Every aspect of our lives would have to change for a truly circular economy to emerge, including our current obsession with economic growth at all costs.
It’s a shift we have to make sooner rather than later, according to scientists and economists, because the current economic system is causing far too much harm to the global environment. A few more decades at current rates of production and consumption would lead to environmental catastrophe and a planet that’s no longer able to foster humanity comfortably.
While circular economics depends on reusing materials, it requires far more than making sure people recycle.
Countries would first need to build the infrastructure to recycle on a vaster scale than is possible today — and not just plastic bags, soda cans, and cardboard boxes. Recycling needs to encompass food scraps, wastewater, construction materials, clothing, technology, and much more, to prevent the expansion of landfills and incinerators. This will require international funding to ensure all countries have the facilities necessary to recycle as much as possible.
The world would have to go further, with countries transforming their entire waste management systems by banning countless non-recyclable materials and phasing out industries that pollute and harm the environment. Completing the circular economy means investing in the regeneration of overexploited ecosystems, prioritizing human well-being, and engaging in restorative forms of justice that unlock human potential.
This transition is being set in motion by a broad coalition of advocacy organizations, community mutual aid groups, eco-conscious companies, local governments, and even multilateral institutions like the United Nations.
The more people join in the circular economy movement, the faster we’ll get there. So to get you inspired, here are five ways we’ll benefit from a circular economy.
1. Less Waste
The most obvious benefit of a circular economy would be the reduction in waste.
The World Bank estimates that countries generate 2.01 billion tons of waste annually, with wealthy countries having the highest per capita share of waste. A typical American produces 1,704 pounds of garbage per year, three times the global average. This waste gets transported and released into landfills, burned in incinerators, and openly dumped into landscapes and bodies of water.
All of these methods have harsh environmental impacts, with landfills leaching toxins into soil and water, incinerators causing air pollution, and open dumping making ecosystems hazardous. Communities in close proximity to waste sites and facilities experience a range of health consequences.
Through circular waste management, these options of waste disposal would be minimized and contained. The waste that is produced would be mostly recycled, because recycling would become a global and well-funded priority.
More importantly, countries would generate less waste to begin with because of standardized manufacturing materials, bans on hard-to-recycle materials, and a general shift away from consumerism and toward models of sharing. Because of this, no more land would have to be sacrificed to landfills and toxic contamination.
2. Less Pollution
This goes hand-in-hand with less waste, but it’s worth focusing on. If countries generated less waste, then less pollution would seep into the water we drink, the soil we use to grow food, and the air we breathe, resulting in better quality of life and improved global health.
Air pollution alone shaves an estimated 2.2 years off the average life span, with people in the most polluted areas losing around five years of life, according to the World Health Organization. More than 2 billion people lack access to safe water largely due to local forms of pollution and a lack of water treatment facilities. Nearly 90,000 children under the age of 5 die each year after drinking contaminated water.
While there are many specific causes of pollution, the primary driver is the linear economic system that prioritizes financial profit over human well-being and environmental integrity. Because of this system, polluting activities are not only allowed to take place, but they’re incentivized if they make enough money.
Just look at the fossil fuel industry’s environmental track record, which is full of catastrophic oil spills, intentional dumping of waste, and all kinds of environmental destruction.
In a circular economy, the values underpinning society would change to prevent environmental harm. If the purpose of the economy is to maintain the planet’s health for future generations, then only activities that support and work harmoniously within the limits of the global environment would be tolerated. Everything else would be phased out, which would have the effect of dramatically reducing pollution levels.
It would take a long time to clean up existing pollution and remove stubborn pollutants from the global environment, but with less overall pollution occurring, countries would be able to focus on rehabilitating the planet.
Microplastics, for instance, will likely be a threat to human health for decades as they continue to circulate within the global environment. But if the hardest-to-recycle forms of plastic are banned, then fewer microplastics will contaminate the environment in the future, allowing countries to contain the threat.
3. A Thriving Global Environment
Under the current linear economy, humanity is destroying the global environment, using up a year’s worth of resources months ahead of schedule each year and jeopardizing the ability of humans to survive in the future.
The purpose of a circular economy is to ensure that natural resources remain indefinitely abundant. In practice, this would mean conserving and restoring environments to ensure that they can reliably produce essential resources like timber, soil, sand, and water. It would also mean putting limits on resource exploitation. This might seem like it would be hard to implement, but scientists can easily determine safe levels of resource exploitation for countries to follow.
Over time, these shifting imperatives would transform the health of the planet, returning huge sections of the planet to vibrant ecological abundance, boosting depleted species, and ensuring a steady supply of resources long into the future.
The ocean, which is being hollowed out, would benefit greatly from this shift. Fish populations, for example, have been pushed to the brink of extinction due to weak oversight of fishing vessels. By enforcing scientifically informed fish quotas, a circular economy would allow fish to recover to healthy levels.
In doing so, entire marine ecosystems would begin to recover from decades of excessive exploitation and pollution.
The larger climate and biodiversity climate would be mitigated as well.
Global waste management generates greenhouse gas emissions in a number of ways, from the methane released from rotting food waste in landfills to the fumes released by waste incinerators. Reducing overall waste would lead to fewer overall emissions.
The global food system, for instance, is responsible for up to 40% of global emissions, and nearly 40% of food is wasted. Restructuring food production and distribution to focus on protecting environments and eliminating hunger would cause emissions to plummet.
Instead of cutting down forests to make room for cattle to graze, communities would practice regenerative agroforestry that stores carbon dioxide. Instead of shipping food around the world only for it to rot along the way, communities who need food would be fed. The sophistication of today’s refrigeration and processing technology and supply chains means that the food system could easily wipe out world hunger if incentives were changed, which is what would happen in a circular economy.
More broadly, however, a circular economy prevents runaway climate change and biodiversity loss.
Shifting to such a circular economy means eliminating all-but-essential fossil fuel consumption and phasing out industries that harm biodiversity. If the values of a circular economy were implemented tomorrow, then global temperatures wouldn’t rise beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold limit established by the Paris climate agreement and the global climate would gradually begin to stabilize. Species that have been in freefall would also begin to stabilize and recover.
The decades ahead, which look so grim under the current system, would recapture the utopian visions that enchanted earlier generations.
4. Meaningful Environmental and Social Justice
from from the environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion
demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London July 15, 2019.
Environmental campaigners are blocking some roads across the UK on
Monday, as they protest against what they allege is “inaction” on
Image: Kirsty O’Connor/PA/AP
A circular economy would entail more than regenerating the planet and working with the limits of various environments. It would also mean regenerating the bonds that hold human communities together, restoring trust in and between people and countries, and addressing the historic harms of colonialism, structural violence, and inequality that have ravaged human potential for centuries.
The current linear economy treats human and environmental resources as disposable commodities and enables extreme exploitation, violence, and poverty. Because a truly circular economy would be premised on human flourishing, these harms would be systematically stopped. This is where the narrow lens of recycling materials expands to encompass the concept of a “just transition” away from harmful industries and activities.
We must change the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities. Just transition initiatives are shifting from dirty energy to energy democracy, from funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from gentrification to community land rights, from military violence to peaceful resolution, and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration. Core to a just transition is deep democracy in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.
To liberate the soil and to liberate our souls we must decolonize our imaginations, remember our way forward and divorce ourselves from the comforts of empire. We must trust that deep in our cultures and ancestries is the diverse wisdom we need to navigate our way toward a world where we live in just relationships with each other and with the earth.
5. More Meaningful Work (and Less Work Overall)
Unlike the current linear economy that pursues economic growth at all costs, a circular economy would be focused on maintaining a “steady state” of production and consumption that allows for the health and well-being of the planet and communities.
In such a system, there would be more clearly defined work goals, both on an individual and society-wide level, which would eliminate the frivolous excess work that characterizes life in the linear economy. All work would support fundamental circular economy goals — ensuring that people have enough food, clean water, shelter, health care, education, and leisure opportunities, and protecting the well-being of environments.
If all people were employed toward these goals, work would be more equitably shared, and the overall amount of work for each person would be less. That’s the liberatory promise of a circular economy — you’ll have your essential needs met, on a planet that’s thriving, and you’ll get to use your time how you want.