Waste & Recycling


Circular Reference Error: Do we understand the circular economy? Part 1

his is the start of a three-piece series on the Circular Economy. We pushed our ideas back and forth to each other until this short essay took form. Laden or leaden with our thoughts and opinions we hope that it sparks debate and helps us understand the Circular Economy, its implications, and how to get there, if in fact that is what we want.

The ‘circular economy’ has become a new buzzword for governments and companies looking to explain important environmental achievements around waste reduction and management. Terms like this often have a tipping point – a point when they cross a certain invisible threshold and become part of the common vernacular. However, when this happens there is a tendency for the actual meaning of the words to be lost as their use is expanded to meet various needs and interests. Conferences, articles, and consultations become echo chambers. For many, the concept at a macro level, is simply an expression of the better management of the environmental impacts of waste generation. Few really understand its meaning, or more importantly, its implications.

It is often easiest to describe concepts by explaining what they are not: The circular economy is not:

  • A number that can be measured through only a tonnage metric.
  • Simply diversion from landfill. It is about re-integrating materials and their value before they are allowed to become waste. For instance, using glass as a fill in a road bed results in a loss of its value and removal from the economy.
  • Creating biodegradable products or products that use less materials unless the value of those materials and nutrients can be retained.
  • Recapturing just any type of value. Instead it is about continuously recirculating and recapturing the value of materials and nutrients as productive inputs into our economy. Anyone that makes the argument that landfill gas capture or energy from waste are a part of the circular economy does not understand the nutrient or material value loss associated with these activities.

At its heart, the circular economy is about efficiency. It is an efficient system that by its nature proactively anticipates and plans for problems and challenges. The waste industry is largely about dealing with a ‘death and taxes’ level truism. It reflects our economy’s inefficiency and the waste it creates. In other words, it is a manifestation of inefficiency. If you ever wonder why people look down on the waste sector, beyond the physical and biological decay of the materials that are managed, it is because waste implicitly represents failure. People have consumed a resource’s utility without having consumed the resource and are left only with reactive options.

‘Addressing Food Waste in Ontario’, an Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change’s discussion paper, envisions that food production moves away from its current linear economy to a circular economy (see the Figure below from this document) http://bit.ly/2si7yBC. It is a good place to start laying out the circular economy and its implications.

(From: 2017 Discussion Paper: Addressing Food Waste in Ontario)

It is our constant battle with bacteria and fungi that brings this sharply into focus. Food is always, and often quickly, reaching the line where its utility is lost. Based on the amount of food that currently goes to waste, it seems we are not only willing to accept this loss but to blithely contribute to it.

This is not to point a finger at any given entity but illustrate the disconnect throughout the entire demand and supply structure. While we all make personal decisions, the situation is heartily aided and abetted by wonky definitions of when food is acceptable to sell or permissive incentives that reward individual to purchase more than they can possibly use. In addition to losing the nutrients and the dollars it cost to purchase it, we immediately lose the embedded environmental impacts from its production and squander its opportunity to at least potentially effect some social good when it becomes waste.

In this context creating compost or biogas is not part of the circular economy at all but is just a sop that soaks up some minimal value from what is now a waste. It is a relic of the linear economy. All that is being accomplished, by wasting food, is the creation of unnecessary agricultural re-production. In the circular economy, organic waste processing facilities are the last resort.

A shift from a reactive linear to a proactive circular economy would be transformative. It would and should shift most of the waste industry’s existing businesses and jobs upstream. In the case of food, these jobs would become agri-food jobs concerned with improving food supply and demand first and extending food shelf life second. This would also be manifest as businesses and jobs that re-distribute surplus food rather than the laudable but inefficient retail/charitable organization model that exists now. Businesses would pay for this service like they pay for waste disposal and diversion now (perhaps a company called Food Management).

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