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Thinking in Circles

by Kate O'Neill
January 28, 2019

Kate O'Neill is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

UC Berkeley – Plastics are central to the global Circular Economy. Their global environmental footprint is evident along their entire supply chain, from production through to disposal. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Report, The New Plastics Economy (2016) reshaped public debate about the production, use and discard of plastics. The European Union’s Circular Economy Action Plan puts plastics front and center. Plastics production sucks up the world’s petroleum. Plastic products are designed and manufactured to cater to our culture of disposability. And masses of discarded plastics now traverse the planet, lasting hundreds of years in the environment. A circular economy approach envisions how to shift plastics production away from fossil fuels, to create more durable (or compostable) alternative products from single use straws to components of industrial equipment, and to actually recycle, reprocess or reuse discarded plastics, a paradigm shift in global production.

However, from the point of view of someone who studies global politics for a living, there are some problems with this grand vision of a new, sustainable global economy. This short essay pulls together some of the questions I have been grappling with for a while, not least about the production, use and discard of plastics. It draws on other examples of political and environmental initiatives and transitions, local and global, that illustrate some of these concerns. Rather than being simply a critique, I hope this thought-piece sparks constructive discussion (and maybe even find some answers) about transitioning towards sustainability. 

Why do I find the concept problematic? A few years ago, I was in the audience at a conference panel on the Circular Economy. One of the presenters, an ecological economist, had a slide that depicted the transition to a circular economy in this way (I am simplifying a little bit): take this straight line with the arrow at the end, and bend it round into a circle. Energy efficiency! No waste! Excitement in the room! Well, that was easy. The social scientist part of my brain flinched. Global economic transitions are never easy, never go to plan, and always hurt people, usually people who are poor and marginalized in the first place. I was thinking about waste pickers losing their livelihoods as landfills are capped to produce more climate friendly energy. Or about the incredibly toxic legacies of chemical and nuclear wastes that cannot be reintegrated back into production. And what about the politics? Whose interests would this transition serve? What made me uncomfortable was that it presented as a technocratic vision offered to the world by global elites. This impression has never entirely gone away, but I continue to grapple with the many conceptual layers of this thing called the Circular Economy.

What is the Circular Economy?

How is the circular economy defined? The concept of a Circular Economy has been part of the lexicon of regulatory policy and industrial ecology in Europe since at least the 1980s. It is the antithesis of the traditional “take, make, dispose” linear economy; advocates often compare it to natural ecosystems, which cycle all organisms back as nutrients. It emphasizes sustainable resource extraction, product design that maximizes use, and recovery and recycling used products and materials after they are discarded. The version presented at that panel was the very “macro” one: a set of principles that can steer the entire global economy towards sustainability, veering away from a disastrous plunge towards environmental and social disaster.

In practice, what does it mean to different constituencies? The Circular Economy is a policy platform, a social movement, and a set of design principles. For some it is a new ideology or paradigm, like Sustainable Development in the 1980s: a global panacea for waste, ecosystem loss, and greenhouse gas production. The Circular Economy has underpinned policy platforms and plans around the world. Its appeal lies in part because it is a set of coherent ideas – a framework – that can guides the actions of citizens, governments, corporations and international organizations now and into the future. The European Union’s sustainability platform is built around it. It is being integrated into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. One of the most prominent but perhaps unexpected places to find legislation that specifically states circular economy goals is China. However, and unsurprisingly, there is none by the US federal government.

It is also the basis for a whole social movement dedicated to cleaning up the planet now and in the future. The goal of creating a circular economy has inspired activist organizations around the world. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is probably its leading champion. Yet, the Circular Economy as a rallying cry has had less grassroots traction than its cousin, Zero Waste. Zero Waste groups have been most effective at local levels, including campuses, corporations, large event venues, and cities. What’s the difference between them? Zero Waste has a narrower (but potentially more attainable) goal of sending no waste (nothing that people throw away) to landfill, incineration or the ocean. This means diverting them to recycling, composting or other use. For example, UC Berkeley has a (rapidly approaching) goal of getting to Zero Waste by 2020, as do the cities of San Francisco, London (65 percent zero waste by 2030) and Kamikatsu, Japan (full zero waste by 2020). Kamikatsu is already known for requiring citizens to sort their trash into 34 categories!

What are problems with and controversies surrounding developing and implementing circular economies?

Can circles be local? Wastes, to take one example, are such a globally networked commodity these days that even with strict local standards, it is hard to stop their transfer to other parts of the world. This has long been the case with electronic wastes, and we now know it is the case with plastics. Food waste just by itself can be dealt with locally, through composting schemes in neighborhoods and communities, creating a local circle. However, it has, in the form of agricultural surplus, have a long history of being shipped to poor countries as food aid with all sorts of negative impacts on the recipients.

More, product supply chains, from cradle to grave, are global. Food, electronics, plastics travel thousands of miles from their point of production, from countries where regulations are hard to draw up, let alone enforce.

Why does this matter? Unfortunately, for circularity to work in the longer term, we need to worry about “leakage,” how restrictions in one part of the world simply lead polluters to move elsewhere. This has happened with forestry. For example, cities can make circularity work within their jurisdiction, but what about their ecological shadows? Jurisdictions cast ecological shadows when they get their resources – food, gasoline and manufactured goods for example – from elsewhere, or ship wastes beyond their boundaries. New York City’s “garbage barges,” which carry tons of trash from the city to many other states in the US and to Canada, often controversially.

Problems arise when exporters do not or cannot control what happens to such shipments. This became glaringly clear when China stopped plastic and paper scrap imports in 2018. If Zero Waste campaigns stop at the recycling bin, for example, with no tracking of what happens to contents once they have left the premises, there is little guarantee of recycling if most is shipped overseas.

Do we recycle or replace and reduce? This is a contentious one. On the one hand, the waste and recycling industry has a direct financial interest in building a circular economy through expanded recycling and reprocessing of municipal solid waste and other discarded stuff. It also can make the argument that we have large stockpiles of wastes stored in landfills (and homes) that should go through that system. On the other hand, others argue the focus needs to be on reducing waste production, and designing products to be more efficient (including energy efficiency), to be more durable, and made out of less harmful materials. This is where design comes in. Petroleum-based plastics are perhaps the main targets for elimination, leading to some of the more exciting innovations, including “mushroom” replacement for Styrofoam to steel straws. Biobased plastics are under development but scaled up production is a ways off. 

Politically, however, this dispute pits powerful interests against each other. It also highlights some long-standing controversies. In many parts of the world, waste incineration (even with energy recovery) is not considered a way to achieve Zero Waste or renewable energy goals, especially given potential for environmental contamination. However, China’s push to create a circular economy depends on building up its incineration capacity, which it has done by leaps and bounds.

Why do global politics matter? From design or ecological perspectives, the circular economy might seem refreshingly apolitical. From some activist perspectives, “politics” (political controversies) are something to be barreled through to design and implement a global circular economy. These perspectives are somewhat akin to technocratic approaches to building markets: create them, let them run unimpeded, and they will work. This, again, is something of an oversimplification but it begs the question: what can disrupt circular economies out of left field and outside their purview? We have one answer: again, China’s disruption of scrap imports as much for matters of local and geopolitics than for the environment (perhaps more).

Perhaps a global agreement could help ward off some of these impacts, as countries agree to work collectively to solve a problem. There are many calls right now for some sort of global plastics agreement. At least 47 years of experience with global environmental governance suggests the answer is not so simple. Some issues, such as ozone layer depletion, have been dealt with successfully. Others, such as climate change, have not transcended conflicting interests. and to date, it seems that regulating plastics production, use and disposal or, more broadly, building towards a global circular economy may be closer to climate change than ozone depletion.

It also has to be recognized that most description, analysis, and implementation of the Circular Economy comes from the Global North. How does “circularity” look different from the perspective of the Global South? Norms of reuse and recycling remain stronger, but they are buckling under the weight of growing consumption, especially in urban areas, with attendant energy use and waste. New research explores what the circular economy and green development look like from a Southern perspective.

What about the transition to a “world without waste”? Last but not least, if we are – hypothetically – to achieve a global Circular Economy we need to think very carefully about what happens as that straight line is bent back into a circle. Large-scale global transitions are never easily achieved, even with wide support, as experience with Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism showed. And their negative impacts can be devastating to certain populations: women’s participation in the labor force and their economic autonomy declined steeply in the transition from state socialist to capitalist regimes. Some proposed solutions to climate change – such as large-scale climate engineering – may hold back global temperature rise but could have strong negative impacts on vulnerable populations. I have already noted impacts on waste pickers suddenly displaced from their livelihoods as landfills are capped to capture methane and use it for energy. And what about the most toxic of wastes, such as fly ash from incinerators and nuclear and chemical wastes? There is always some slippage in terms of what can be or what is recycled.

The Circular Economy has powerful appeal, as local policy and as a new global paradigm. It does, however, have issues that become particularly clear when using a global politics lens. Still, this also suggests learning from prior and broader experiences in the global realm. Reducing plastics worldwide is not simply a matter of local bans and creating political will. It requires engaging with some of the fundamentals of global politics and economics. Getting back to that conference panel, it was helpful to be pushed to think through the problems with leading conceptions of the Circular Economy, and now, to have the opportunity to work through them in constructive ways.