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In the Loop

Why circularity can’t be an exclusive club

We need all voices to set the direction for the circular economy.

A weathered door with a padlock and chain.

A weathered door with a padlock and chain. Source: Pexels/Tom D'Arby

A recent article by Grist called attention to Circularity 23 in not-so-flattering terms. It painted circularity as a movement without definition, rampant with corporate greenwashing and obsessed with recycling. While none of these points is 100 percent incorrect, they feel like overgeneralizations that warrant a response. Let’s dive into each briefly. 

It lacks a definition

Reporter Joseph Winters, as well as several people he quoted, argued that the circular economy is not well defined. 

With all due respect, I disagree. The circular economy can and does mean a lot of things, and it can be defined differently depending on your place in the economy. But to say that the circular economy is not well defined is to admit that anything that takes more than one sentence to describe is undefinable. 

One of the best examples of a circular economy definition I’ve seen is from the European Parliament:

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.

In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible thanks to recycling. These can be productively used again and again, thereby creating further value.

It’s important to remember that sustainability in some ways is still not easily defined either. We strive to live within planetary boundaries, and the circular economy and sustainability are both helpful frameworks to guide that work, even when the general consensus is that we’ll never get all the way there. 

One related business imperative as a comparison is product quality. We have objective measures to show progress on quality (such as defects per million, warranty claims and product longevity), but we know we’ll never get all the way to the finish line where there are no more quality improvements to be made. Just as product quality is defined by the metrics used to track it, so too is circularity. Sending less to landfill, incinerating less material, releasing fewer plastics into the environment, decreasing raw material extraction, increasing reuse and other metrics can measure progress toward a circular economy. 

It’s just greenwashing

The Grist piece quotes a Greenpeace Canada campaigner saying, "At this point, any time I hear the phrase ‘circular economy’ I assume that it’s greenwashing." 

This fatalistic attitude is one of many reasons we are failing to make meaningful progress toward circularity. When individuals and advocacy groups brush aside the investments and efforts corporations are making to improve their practices, it only disincentivizes future efforts. Similarly, when corporations don’t listen to calls from customers to improve, it reinforces the idea that businesses exist only to make profits.

This fatalistic attitude is one of many reasons we are failing to make meaningful progress toward circularity.

Am I advocating that corporations shout from the mountaintops for every incremental improvement in their products or packaging? Absolutely not. Is it greenwashing to say you’ve improved the recyclability of your plastic bottle by changing from green tinted to clear PET? Also no. This type of progress on recyclability is incremental but progress nonetheless.

As with every other challenging problem we face as a global population, a bit of nuance is required that is too often reduced to black and white. Moving the topic of a circular economy from the fringe of large corporations’ strategies toward the center will take time.

It’s synonymous with recycling

Grist quoted someone from a waste reduction nonprofit saying they "came away from the conference feeling like circularity has become synonymous with recycling." Yes, the outsized focus on recycling is frustrating, but this is an example of meeting large corporations where they are. We have come to a place in the 21st century where we can’t recycle our way out of the mess we’ve created, but we also can’t get out of the mess without recycling. 

While no circular system exists for all plastics, it is problematic for the circular economy movement to fully exclude from discussions the large companies that produce and use plastics. Some companies are, paradoxically, both part of the problem and key to implementing solutions at scale, and it is important to include them in these critical conversations.

With some folks taking the position that fossil fuels and plastics don’t belong in the modern economy, and others taking the position that they need to be a part of the future, how do we move forward?

For better or worse, plastics have a role in society. We must recognize that all materials have impacts, and that none are inherently good or bad. Instead, how materials are sourced and managed will determine their true impact. Certain toxic materials still have a key role to play in our economy until we find a viable alternative. We will continue to encourage our audience to make improvements through introducing them to innovations toward circularity, engaging with organizations that strive for more progress and calling out when they miss the mark. As we prioritize better design, as well as reduction and reuse over recycling, we can elevate our collective ambition toward a sustainable global economy.

With some folks taking the position that fossil fuels and plastics don’t belong in the modern economy, and others taking the position that they need to be a part of the future, how do we move forward? 

Right now I only have one idea. Whether we are individual consumers or practitioners for corporations, advocacy groups or government agencies, collaboration is key in the work toward a circular economy. We can’t meet the needs of a planet of more than 8 billion people, live within planetary boundaries, improve the challenges of environmental injustice and take sides against each other. Finding common ground and making steady progress is the only way through. We can aim for perfection but can’t expect it to happen tomorrow.

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