The circular economy holds out the hope of living within the planet’s resources. Turning aspiration into action is another matter.
A little over a year ago, schoolchildren across the globe embarked on huge strikes over the climate emergency. Our global economic system is unsustainable: continuous economic growth and endless consumption mean ever-increasing waste. Waste which is buried, dumped at sea or turned into ash pollutes the environment and creates the need to extract further raw materials.
The European Union’s ambition to move towards a circular economy, and in particular its Circular Economy Action Plan, should therefore be welcomed. The circular economy implies radical change to how production and consumption are organised—away from a linear model of growth (extract, make, dispose) to a sustainable alternative (recycle, reuse, remake, share). Waste then becomes a resource.
In a report commissioned by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), I showed however that the circular economy does not operate of itself. Especially, waste management—central to the circular economy—is an essential public service. Unfortunately, the pay of workers in waste management is often low, working conditions hard and unpleasant and, on top of that, health and safety is often disregarded. The report highlighted that very little attention has been paid to workers operating essential waste services to keep society running and maintain a sustainable environment. In the EU action plan the workers—formal and informal—relied upon are not even mentioned.
Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has made our societies’ dependence on essential workers very evident. In this context, Martin Luther King’s words dramatically resonate. Two weeks before his assassination in 1968 King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis: ‘One day, our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labour has dignity.’
The circular economy aims to maintain products, materials and resources in the product cycle for as long as possible, thereby minimising waste. The more that is reused and the less discarded, the fewer raw materials will be extracted. The new model promises to keep production and consumption up while being resource-efficient and consuming and producing within the means of the planet.
As such, the circular economy is a ‘green growth’ strategy. Yet, sustainable green growth is a contradiction in terms. Waste is an inherent and inevitable feature of capitalist economies. To produce and consume within the means of our planet, production and consumption, and thus waste, need to be reduced.
The circular economy offers an opportunity for companies to stimulate consumption. Research has shown how companies such as Apple become certified as ‘circular’ companies to brand themselves as ethical and environmentally responsible, so that consumers can enjoy guilt-free shopping while being encouraged to consume more. It goes hand-in-hand with another consumption-boosting strategy—planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence means designing products with a short lifespan to ensure people buy new products frequently. The same electronic companies that brand themselves as circular have also become known for deliberately engineering the artificial lifetime of products to boost consumption.
In waste management, the profitability of the circular economy becomes particularly evident. Treating waste as a resource means that companies can profit twice from the same material—by disposing of it and by selling it. Consequently, there is increasing competition over the value of waste at local, national and international levels. With growing awareness of the finite nature of raw materials and the many problems related to ‘extractivism’—extraction of more and more raw materials to feed the world economy—the struggle over resources has found a new realm: the Scramble for Waste.
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Waste in Europe is increasing. In 2016, the total amount generated in the EU was 2,538 million tonnes, more than a 3 per cent increase from 2010. Municipal waste, derived mainly from households, has been steadily falling but it only accounts for around 8 per cent of the total. Most waste is generated in construction (36 per cent), followed by mining and quarrying (over 25 per cent). Manufacturing contributes 10 per cent and another 10 per cent comes from waste- and water-management activities themselves.
More complex waste-management methods and the growth of secondary waste, produced through recycling and energy-recovery activities, mean that waste from waste is increasing quickly (by over 5 per cent between 2010 and 2016, excluding major mineral wastes). Zero waste is thus an illusion: a circular economy can never deliver 100 per cent reuse.
Europe’s circular-economy success has been achieved by exporting waste to other countries—mostly with lower labour costs and weaker environmental regulations. Up until 2018, China was the leading destination for recycling, reuse and disposal of solid waste from all over the world. In 2016, it imported two-thirds of global plastic waste and a significant amount of the world’s scrap paper, textile waste and scrap metal. But in January 2018 this global circular economy hit a major barrier: China banned the import of plastic wastes which did not meet new purity standards. Plastic-waste shipments to China dropped instantly by 99 per cent.
Long shipment periods increase the risk of contamination, making waste more dangerous for workers and decreasing its recyclability and reusability. Even before China, followed quickly by other Asian countries, tightened the rules for importing recyclable waste, only 10 per cent of the world’s plastic waste was recycled. So, Europe’s recycling capacity has to be increased—we cannot simply export our waste problem.
Europe needs to invest in more local and regional recycling plants, to avoid long storage enhancing contamination. These plants need to be built and operated with the health and safety of workers in mind.
Policy proposals, such as the EU’s March action plan, often conflate waste prevention with recycling. The circular economy is supposed to be built on a waste hierarchy, distinguishing prevention and favouring it over recycling. In reality, circular-economy activities are often at odds with waste prevention because there is profit in waste, as well as in the increased production and consumption enabled by circular-economy activities. There is however no profit in the avoidance of waste—it costs national and local governments to subsidise and carry out waste prevention and reuse.
Often different waste-treatment measures compete. For example, waste-to-energy (WtE) plants require high investment and thus private operators usually oblige municipalities to commit to continuous waste streams for several decades—often up to 50 years. As such, the United Nations Environment Programme has warned that WtE can create a lock-in effect: a certain amount of waste is required to run the plants, hindering waste prevention.
Public ownership and control are key to ensuring profit is not prioritised over environmental concerns. A best-practice example can be found in Ljubljana, Slovenia—Europe’s most circular capital. It has a publicly funded and publicly operated waste-treatment plant, which includes WtE.
This public waste-management system ensures waste treatment goes hand in hand with waste-avoidance initiatives and a municipal waste-collection system which incentivises accurate waste sorting for recycling at home. Ljubljana demonstrates how a safe and sustainable circular economy is possible.
Vera Weghmann works at the Public Services International Research Unit. Her research focuses on public services, in particular privatisation and remunicipalisation of public services, waste management, energy liberalisation and the Just Transition and public transport.