Circular Economies

It has become clear that human – particularly industrial – waste does more than damage the environment. It also creates inefficiencies in the markets in which it is involved, and inhibits economic success in several ways. For example, many valuable materials are sitting useless in landfills, instead of being used by industry. Additionally, the costs to maintain these waste sites could be better spent in other industries that contribute more to social welfare. In fact, the idea that waste is tied to economic prosperity is so pervasive that there is an entire form of economy based on the idea of minimizing waste. This is what is called a circular economy.

A circular economy is a commercial system designed to reduce and reuse as much material as possible, and intentionally restores the natural world (World Economic Forum). It does so through the maintenance of two, circular waste streams: biological and technical nutrients. Biological nutrients can be safely returned to the earth, technical nutrients are objects that are hazardous, but designed to be infinitely reused by industry. If there is a transition to a circular economy, the net economic benefit would be roughly one trillion dollars in material savings alone (WEF). This number doesn’t even include the benefits that stem from the increase in job creation, the reduction in the volatility of natural resource prices, and the increased health of the environment.

The use of a circular economy has been implemented as an official policy in China starting in 2002. (The Circular Economy) This was implemented in the hopes of decreasing the rate of the depletion of resources. It would also help increase the potential GDP per capita of China by allowing them the continuous access to these resources and by creating a more sustainable future. They are also hoping this will decrease the current pollution stream that exists. There are tons of toxic waste going into landfills and streams in China. However, the Chinese government does not seem to be actually following this trajectory. As of 2016 there have been deaths reported from inhaling toxic gas through drainage pipes. Also, China still seems to be putting current economic growth over the sustainability of the growth of their economy. (China’s Toxic Waste)

    If our country were to embrace the idea of a circular economy and implement it, we would greatly reduce the environmental degradation and resource depletion associated with our current materials/waste system. Instead of reducing waste, we could eliminate the concept of waste, replacing it with the concept that waste = food for some other organism or process. This transition in thinking will decouple our waste generation from our consumption. On the environmental Kuznets curve for waste, this point would be the crest of the parabola where we can start actually reducing our waste generation while efficiently developing our economy and increasing consumption.

Currently many societies use linear programed (LP) waste allocation, which does not take into consideration many different factors such as uncertainties, scales of problem, and effectiveness.  By only considering two possibilities, the upper and lower bound, or best and worst situation, LP does not account for externalities.  By using more intricate programming such as Gray-linear (GLP) these problems are accounted for.  GPL breaks does each problem and when there is an externality found, it breaks that down that, until there are only solutions.  In order to properly implement circular flow waste allocation economies can not continue to run on a all or nothing scenarios.  Waste allocation can quickly be eliminated with the help of circular flow and more extensive programming.  

Not only can circular waste systems offer a solution to the ever-present waste problem, but it can encourage a movement towards circular economies. Provided that the actions of a country follow through with whatever policy is written to discourage exploitation of natural and industrial resources. Moving towards a circular waste stream, and economy can be seen as a serious commitment to changing the way we think about, and use waste, however, it’s not a perfect system. Our current implementation and metrics of circular economies neglects many of the intricacies which contribute to our waste problem. By exploring new ways to deal with the many inextricable externalities of waste, we see that a movement towards circular systems can offer new ways to think about and deal with waste.

Written collectively by: Waste Group


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