Circular economy

Workers sort plastic bottles at a recycling centre in Ningbo, Zhejiang province
Plastic bottles are sorted by workers at a recycling center in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. Photo by Steven Shi/Reuters sourced from Benjamin Haas’s article in The Guardian “China’s informal army of recyclers keep plastic bottles out of landfill“.

My previous blog posts have dealt with the archeology of garbage and the culture of poverty to expose some problems associated with garbage management. Here we explore a possible and increasingly accepted solution to comprehensively deal with waste management before it becomes garbage: the circular economy.

The circular economy seeks to redefine economic growth, with an emphasis on benefits for all societies. This implies decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and minimizing the generation of garbage from the design of objects and services. It also proposes to redefine the ownership of items. That is, instead of a consumer buying and owning an object like a washing machine or a cell phone, a company rents its service. That company is the object’s owner, so it is responsible for maintaining and reintegrating it to the production chain (in parts or repaired) when its useful life ends. The latter removes planned obsolescence from the system. The circular economy model contemplates that access to services provided by companies is increasingly extended among the population to maximize social benefits.

The transition to a circular economy is not limited to adjustments that reduce the negative impacts that it may cause, but represents a systemic change in which all links in the production chains adopt this model and thus move to zero waste production, the efficient use of energy, and the generation of it from renewable sources. The circular model seeks to create economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles: a) eliminate waste and pollution from the design, b) keep products and materials in use, and c) regenerate natural systems.

The model makes a distinction between technical and biological cycles. Consumption occurs only in biological cycles, where food and other bio-based materials (e.g., cotton and wood) are designed to return to the system through composting and anaerobic digestion processes. The cycles return to living systems, such as the soil, in which they help regenerate renewable resources useful for society, the economic system, and the environment. For their part, technical cycles recover and restore components of products and materials through reuse, repair, remanufacturing, or (ultimately) recycling strategies.

Although the circular economy model is hopeful in terms of its potential to reduce the generation of waste or the social and environmental benefits, we must not lose sight of the fact that there are pre-existing and challenging inequalities to be eradicated before changing the current model.

For example, consider the idea that the most polluting companies on the earth will develop strategies to incorporate people into the production chain while designing packaging that is less harmful to the environment. As part of their strategy, will these companies hire people to collect PET (plastic) and other readily marketable waste products directly from landfills, streets, and garbage cans? While the intention would be to put those materials back into the production chain, instead of letting them accumulate in a landfill, are there social equity issues with this economic strategy? Will the people most likely to do this trash collection work be low-income or impoverished people?

An economic model alone can solve complex problems where society, the environment, and the economy interact. Still, it can help to design diverse alternatives that seek to achieve a common objective: improve environmental quality, improve the quality of life of the people through the provision of better services and products, without neglecting social equity.

Author: Ulsia Urrea Mariño

I am a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in the Coastal and Marine System Science program, Master in Urban Studies at COLMEX, and Undergraduate in Sustainable Management of Coastal Zones at UNAM. My professional research lines are: the Mexican's beach management, the integral management of solid waste in coastal localities, anthropological analysis of fishers, examines on Mexican legislation on seas and coasts, the study of urban development since tourism and climate change points of view, and the Mexican ocean energy. The areas of work where I have developed my studies have been the North Mexican Pacific, The Gulf of Mexico, and The Mexican Caribbean Sea. I am also a documentalist and member of RICOMAR, IBERMAR, PROPLAYAS, Centro Tepoztlán Víctor L. Urquidi, and Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance networks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s