Could Circular Economy be a mere illusion of tackling sustainability issues?

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The true face of the Circular Economy

Throughout recent decades Earth’s life-support systems have been increasingly jeopardized by accelerated natural resource exploitation and enhanced waste generation. A wide range of environmental, societal, and economical challenges have escalated, giving rise to the dire need for sustainable solutions that can save our planet from the dark future. Being built on the notions of zero waste, cradle to cradle, and biomimicry the concept of circular economy has gained its momentum on the agendas of many policymakers. While the potential of circularity to contribute to sustainable development has been extensively endorsed, its true implications are still to be uncovered.

To begin with, let’s discuss what circular economy truly entails. The most renowned definition belongs to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, describing it as “an industrial economy that is restorative or regenerative by intention or design”.  The circular economy is expected to deliver greater good for all by extending the lifespan of products, equipment, and infrastructure through reusing, refurbishing, re-manufacturing, recycling, and recuperating them. Besides, it suggests a distinctive approach to waste, considering it as a circulating resource pool rather than useless remains. Inevitably, a fully circular economy goes far beyond than just effective recycling. It is equally concerned with sustainable product design and crafting process that is fueled by renewable energy. Stated endeavors should be complemented by multiplex efforts at local, national, regional, or global levels along with systems thinking within and among each of them.

At first glance, the construction of a circular economy looks like a magical fix to our environmental woes and presents the “win-win” solution to our longstanding sustainability paradigm. Even though the concept of circularity suggests a promising strategy for dealing with environmental concerns and demonstrates the ability to provide certain socio-economic benefits, there is a need for scrutiny until we label it as an ultimate settling.

Many critiques argue that the notion of a fully circular economy lacks viability and is too abstract, at this stage at least. The ideas of designing out the waste from the entire system and closing the loops sound impressive. However, in practice, they might not be achievable. For instance, some substances might reach their dead-end after several rounds of recycling, precipitating the need for containment outside of the cycle. In certain occurrences, materials might be too complex to be recycled, resulting in inferior recovered value compared to the recovery price. In the presence of low-efficiency recycling, circularity might prove to be counterproductive for businesses, making it an undesirable process.

Another issue with the circular economy has to deal with recycling energy sources. Fossil fuels that are burnt as the source of energy can’t be reused or recycled. This indicates that there should be a continuous need for extracting new fossil fuels. Even if the world could switch to 100% renewable energy, still the matter would be left unsolved, as building and maintaining renewable energy plants by themselves require resources. Furthermore, harvesting and storing renewable energy is hugely dependent on materials that are very complex to be recycled, which in turn require to be landfilled or incinerated.

The prospect of the Circular economy gets even more undermined by Jevons Paradox: Increasing Efficiency doesn’t lead to less consumption – it leads to more. So, in essence, the expected savings from improved efficiency might be well compromised by the rebound effect. Besides, Global growth rates suggest that the world has been increasing its use of resources by an average of 3% per year throughout the last century. This means that hypothetically, even if we were to recycle all raw materials with full efficiency, the number of resources needed to meet the needs of the growth would always exceed the ones available within the closed loops.

As far as sustainability is concerned, circularity does not necessarily fulfill all of its three dimensions. Being majorly focused on economic and several environmental aspects it clearly lacks social focus. Therefore, it cannot provide for uncompromised future.

Without a doubt, the ideas behind the circularity can make a huge positive impact and alter our future towards better. However, looking back to just some of the limitations listed above, transitioning to the circular economy cannot be considered as a straightforward solution for tackling global sustainability issues. This kind of approach would simply create a mere illusion and a false sense of security that could lead to detrimental results. The only successful way towards a great big transition is to consider the circular economy as a part of the greater effort made to overcome the issues of economic growth, wasteful consumerism, and undemocratic power structures. Instead of suggesting the circular economy as an isolated holistic framework, the world should take it as a single piece of a puzzle that has to come together with other missing parts. The concept of circularity can only prove successful in case if it is integrated with wider strategies that allow us to reform the entire economic system.

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