What do we mean by a “circular economy”?
While there are circular economy thought leaders such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there is no widely accepted definition of the term “circular economy”. Often, the easiest way to describe what a circular economy is is by describing what it is not. A linear system is designed to send materials in one direction, ending either in a landfill or deposited in to the environment in a state where it is hard to recapture (often with harmful impacts). Often referred to as the culture of “take, make, dispose,” a linear system focuses on extraction of new materials to make a product with little success in recapturing the materials after the end of life.
This system cannot be sustained. There are certain resources that we cannot “make” again. Take fossil fuels for example; an argument can be had about when they will run out, but not whether or not they will run out. By acknowledging the immediate scarcity of some materials, (phosphate rock, rare earth metals, sand, etc) we are recognizing that we have to plan for the day we can no longer extract “new” materials out of the earth.
Our current linear system is based on perceived abundance of materials, resources, and nutrients. The case for circular systems then rests on the reality of resource scarcity as well as the environmental problems that come with the extraction of new materials. At its essence, the concept of a circular economy is meant to tackle the following problem: we live in a world of finite resources yet we are operating as if there are infinite resources to “consume”.
Why focus on local circular economies?
Localizing systems has both clear and less conspicuous connections to the circular economy. The most obvious connections are related to efficiency and logistics. The farther materials need to travel, more energy is needed and it’s less likely relatively small amounts of materials will be shared between businesses or processes. Local circular systems facilitate business to business waste synergies, especially for small businesses.
There are currently robust efforts to engage many of the largest businesses in the emerging circular economy, especially those that have an outsized impact on resource consumption and plastic waste. Working with large businesses is absolutely important and necessary if we are going to move toward circularity, however, if we just focus on efforts at the macro scale it is easy to focus on resources and overlook the people and ecosystems that are making the economy possible!
What gets left out when we focus on the macro level are the role of small businesses, ecosystems, and even equity. Plant Chicago’s history of co-location with small businesses on the southwest side of Chicago bring these issues to the forefront. What benefits can a circular economy bring to small businesses and what role can they play in the transition? Will a circular economy bring benefits to low income neighborhoods, or will it result in further economic disparity? Can a circular economy support diversity in an ecosystem?
At the moment, the circular economy movement is hyper-focused on global resource scarcity. Or rather, the transition to circular systems is centered on constructing an economy that isn’t based on extraction of new resources (stored energy) from the Earth. Viewing circular economies through a local lens shows that small businesses, ecosystems and social justice must be a crucial component of a circular economy. If we fail to address these as we transition to a circular system, we are at risk of perpetuating the same economic and environmental injustices in our current linear system.