Towards a Circular Economy

circular economy

In a recent interview EU Environment Commissioner Januz Potočnik stated that the European Union is en route to the circular economy. A step which he described as being essential in ensuring the EU’s competitiveness.

The circular economy, in contrast to the linear economy is one which respects nature and seeks to utilise the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner.

The linear economy is based on a take-make-waste model, extracting raw materials from the earth and dumping the resulting waste after use.  This is a cradle to grave path for raw materials. The EU’s waste management strategy in conjunction with its Roadmap to a Resources Efficient Europe seeks to decouple the generation of waste from economic growth thus nudging the EU towards a new path: one of green growth.

This is also the basic philosophy of the Waste Management Strategy proposed by the Environment Ministry in Malta and currently subject to public consultation.

Malta’s proposed Waste Management Strategy advocates a policy of waste minimisation, that is, we must make an effort to avoid use of resources whenever possible. In addition it then advocates recycling the waste which is generated. This is done by tackling different waste streams in a manner most appropriate to the materials used in that specific stream. 2050 is the Malta target for achieving a Zero Waste society. An achievable target only if we get down to business immediately.

Waste separation is  an essential prerequisite in order to ensure that effective recycling takes place.   As a result of recycling, the waste from a specific product or process feeds a separate process. This is the manner in which nature functions. Have you ever noted how a tree sheds its leaves? How these leaves slowly decompose and nourish the soil, micro-organisms, insects and plants and actually feed the surrounding eco-system?

We have a lot to learn from nature. Biomimicry, imitating nature, is in fact a branch of study which seeks to apply nature’s lessons to solve many modern day problems. Discarding our throwaway attitudes is one such basic lesson.

Modern manufacturing is characterised by a cradle to grave design. It is the result of a society accustomed to throw away products once their useful life ends.

Applying nature’s lessons hence signifies manufacturing products whose life cycle is no longer one which leads from the cradle (production) to their grave (disposal). Instead of being discarded at the end of its useful life a product gives birth to something else through recycling. Just like nature does when dealing with the tree’s leaves. The cradle to grave cycle needs to be transformed into a cradle to cradle cycle.

This obviously has an impact on the manner in which products are designed.  In their  book  Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, American Architect William McDonough and German Chemist Michael Braungart explain that life cycle thinking, instead of filtering out the undesirable substances and toxins in a product at the end of the manufacturing process filter them out at the beginning, that is on the drawing board.

A waste management strategy which is based on a resource management approach is linked to these long term aims. It is a long process but one which is finally rewarding.

By separating our waste we facilitate its recycling. When recycling takes place we reduce the take-up of the earth’s resources and consequently avoid using the energy required to extract more resources from the earth.

All this shifts the focus from economic growth linked to activities which harm our surroundings to economic activity which enhances them. This leads to the creation of  green jobs.  It shifts our thinking to one which links prosperity with environment protection.

Resource efficiency is at the core of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It does not only mean doing more with less, that is, being eco-efficient. It requires also being eco-effective, that is ensuring that the consideration of long term impacts features in all our decisions. That means designing the present with the future in mind.

A waste management policy based on resource efficiency is an essential tool in this respect. This is just one example. Plenty of other examples can be found in appropriate policies to manage our water resources, our land use, our heritage.

All this leads back to the circular economy which is not just a green way of organising our economy.  It is a different way of life. A way of life which is not antagonistic to our surroundings but one which is in harmony with them.

This is what sustainable development is all about. It seeks to redimension the manner we think.. Having just one Earth we must realise that we cannot have another try if we succeed in ruining the present one.  There is no Plan B.

The circular economy is an adequate tool which can set us back on track.

published in The Times, Saturday November 2, 2013

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The politics of sustainable development

published on Sunday 29 June 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 The government is in transit: it has declared that from now on sustainable development will be the cornerstone of its policies. However, it has not yet stated how this will come about. With regard to this issue, it cannot wait five years to implement its proposal. It must be in a position to deliver immediately.

The adoption of sustainable development as the focus of government policy should lead to the logical conclusion that the economy should henceforth no longer be viewed as an objective but rather as a tool: the economy should be at our service, rather than being our master! The point of departure should be the ecosystem of which we form part. The limited capacity of our ecosystem should lead us to adopt ecocentric policies as distinguished from the current anthropocentric ones. This is what sustainability is all about and this is what the adoption of sustainable development, as a policy objective, should lead us to. The transition from the current state of affairs to a sustainable state should hopefully address the causes of our accumulated environmental deficit!

The government is now seeking ways to live up to its declarations in favour of sustainable development, hoping that it would not have to resort to make substantial changes to existing policies. It is however next to impossible to arrest the accumulated and ever-increasing environmental deficit without addressing the policies and attitudes that have caused it. The list is quite long!

In Malta too, mainstream politics is motivated by the instant link between cause and effect. The community almost immediately feels the economic and social effects of policies and administrative decisions. Thus, mainstream politicians are generally quick to react even to a perceived impact on the economy or on the social fabric. The effects of environmental impacts are however generally much

slower, in part due to the resilience of Mother Earth. Hence, for innumerable political generations, environmental impacts were completely ignored or sidelined, as there was a time lag at times of considerable duration between cause and effect. Now the chickens are coming home to roost and further postponement is not possible. Today’s generation will have to shoulder and address the accumulated environmental deficit, hopefully reducing its effect on future generations.

Policy needs to be approached in a holistic manner, focusing simultaneously on social environmental and economic considerations. It is not a question of an artificial balance between the economy, the environment and social policy but of acting correctly, preferably each and every time. A policy, which is economically sound but socially and/or environmentally wobbly, is of no use and should be discarded. The reverse side is already common practice as socially and environmentally sound policies are rarely applied if they do not pass the test of economic viability.

I acknowledge that this is quite a hard nut to crack, as it will require revisiting practically all areas of policy. Some areas will require minor policy adjustments while others will require a complete overhaul. In some areas action has already commenced. In others, action is incomprehensible at this stage given the current prevalent mindset.

The politics of sustainable development is concerned with redirecting economic activity such that this is compatible with ecological and social requirements. The environment, the economy and social needs are thus placed on the same level when decisions are taken. Throughout the years economic decisions have generally taken into consideration their social impacts. As a result, various measures have been introduced to mitigate and/or prevent negative social effects. The politics of social solidarity as developed has assisted in the transition from a free market economy to a social market economy.

The politics of sustainable development is the means leading to the next transition: an ecocentric economy. The environmental impacts of social and economic policy require attention at the drawing board rather than mitigation after they have occurred. In order for this to occur, it is required that instead of facing the effects we direct our energies to tackle the causes. It is for this reason that the Environment Protection Act of 2001 provides in Section 8 for the setting up of a National Sustainability Commission entrusted with the drafting of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development for the Maltese Islands. The Commission has laboured between 2002 and 2006 to produce a draft, which was concluded and presented to Cabinet for approval in December 2006. Cabinet approved it late in 2007.

In the public sector, the government’s adoption of the principles of sustainable development should spur action on three levels – tackling upstream impacts, direct impacts and downstream impacts. This will necessarily filter through to the private sector that will effectively have no choice but to proceed on similar lines. The government would be leading by example.

Some time last year, the government had commenced an exercise which should eventually lead to a system of public sector green purchasing, whereby non-economic criteria are inbuilt into tender documents. This would not only entail conditions of environmental importance, but also ones of social relevance. We have not heard much on developments to date except declarations during the March 2008 election campaign, and some echoes

afterwards that when contracting-out for services, the public sector will be on the look out for the conditions of work of the employees of those who take part in the tendering process. This was stated because a miniscule part of the private sector is being very innovative when it comes to determining the manner of circumventing the acquired rights of its employees. While the government is certainly hitting the right note when it identified the rights of those employed by bidders for public tenders as ripe for scrutiny, I believe that it is well past the stage of declarations. Concrete action is urgently required.

The public sector will properly manage its upstream impacts only if it ensures that all those who supply it with goods and services do so in a manner that is socially just and environmentally responsible.

The direct impacts of the public sector are the most obvious ones. The appointment of Green Leaders in different ministries and authorities was a step in the right direction as it set the foundations for a culture change among public sector employees. It can lead to quick results (known in environmental management as the “low lying fruit”) in areas related to energy and water consumption, use of stationery, other materials and equipment and waste management among others. The appointment of green leaders can thus set the public sector on the road leading to eco-efficiency.

However, an emphasis on the public sector downstream impacts will be that which eventually could make the major difference. The effects on those at the receiving end of the public sector will not only determine “value for money” but also, more importantly, in my view, it will determine whether the public sector is eco-effective.

The first on the list would be public sector employees themselves and the effects of the fixed term contract on their morale and professional conduct. Subsequently, each policy must be examined for its ecological impact while searching for alternative methods of implementation, which would reduce or preferably eliminate its undesirable impacts.

Managing the social and environmental impacts of the public sector is of paramount importance in the path leading to sustainable development. This will involve the individual policies that need to be analysed in detail. Value for money is not the only criterion used to assess whether public monies have been well spent. When this is taken in hand the public sector would have commenced trekking on the long road of sustainable development. The first steps are the most difficult. Translating rhetoric into action is only possible if the original rhetoric is a reflection of an inner conviction.

Only time will tell.