Andeas Dimmelmeier / Mar 2022
In 2021 humanity extracted 100 billion tons of materials such as minerals, fossil fuels, metals or biomass, which served as inputs to the global economy. This represents a more than threefold increase over the last 50 years. At the same time the percentage of materials that re-enter the production process after being discarded has actually decreased between 2018 (9,1%) and 2020 (8,6%). These figures show that the material needs of expanding production still outpace technological progress in recycling.
Unsurprisingly, this extractive and polluting model of ‘take, make, waste’ has already led to major adverse implications. The large-scale extraction of materials often transforms ecosystems into wastelands for long periods of time. According to one UN study material extraction can be linked to 80% of biodiversity loss as well as to significant greenhouse gas emissions and the disruption of water systems. On the other side of the equation, there are the issues of waste and pollution. Like extraction, the disposal of waste disrupts and destroys nature as is perhaps most drastically illustrated by increasing pollution of the planet’s oceans with plastics. And pollution as well as hazardous wastes are major threats to human health and wellbeing.
It is against this background that the concept of a circular economy has gained increasing traction over the past decade among academics, policymakers, businesses and civil society organisations. The basic intuition is fairly simple. It aims to replace the linear economic system (i.e. 'take, make, waste') with a closed and self-regenerating system. Therefore, the circular economy no longer takes disproportionate amounts from ecological systems while imposing waste and pollution on them.
How to create a circular economy is, however, a much more complex question. One thing that is certain is that moving away from the linear economic model will entail profound changes to our socio-economic arrangements. These changes go way beyond increased recycling by households and the development of new technologies to recover resources from waste. A circular economy that is worth its name is likely to require major legal reforms in areas such as product regulation. Moreover, we will have to change our views, definitions and treatment of what we today consider to be “waste”. But the required changes do not end here. A circular economy will also require changes to predominant business models, taxation and even mindsets.
By extension this means that the circular economy – if it is to be successful in “closing the loop” and decreasing material extraction – will have profound implications on many aspects of our lives. Work arrangements based on repair and recycling rather than on producing more “stuff” and then disposing of it will likely look very different from what is the norm today. Likewise, a circular economy will have profound implications for people’s consumption. A shift towards circular consumption can certainly take inspiration from ongoing experiments like “products as a service”, where the producer retains ownership of items such as clothing or electronics and provides the consumer with repair and replacement services for a fee. In addition, municipal initiatives like repair cafés or the incorporation of circular economy consideration into cities’ public procurement are welcome starting points. However, achieving a circular consumption at scale raises questions of affordability and governance that require us to think beyond the findings from such isolated cases.
It is clear then that the circular economy is in need of a holistic framework both in terms of how we theorize it and in terms of how we design policies to achieve it. Yet the fact that concept of a circular economy has only recently been articulated and applied in academic and policy-making settings has meant that a holistic approach that focusses on the multiple levers of change - as well as on the risks and opportunities of the circular economy for workers and consumers - has so far been underdeveloped.
The edited volume “The Circular Economy and Green Jobs in the EU and beyond” aims to fill this gap by kick-starting a discussion on how to transition to a circular economy in a fair and just way. The authors take a close look at the actors, business models, supply chains, trade relations, legal provisions, citizen ethics and jobs that will characterize a future circular economy. The book lays particular emphasis on the social aspects of a circular economy. The authors highlight amongst others questions of affordability of circular economy products as well as the need to make sure that future “circular economy jobs” are indeed decent jobs where people can employ their skills.
Looking at the conditions of circular economy jobs matters since in sectors like recycling precarious and hazardous employment is still very present. In this context, one interesting touching point between the circular economy and a radically different business model with social benefits lies in the “social economy”. This concept is noteworthy as organisations in the social economy often bring recycling activities together with providing assistance to communities and vulnerable people. Thinking about already existing good practices in places like the social economy can thus act as an inspiration as well as a caveat to ensure that circular economy jobs remain embedded in local communities and are not shifted to exploitative business models such as the platform economy.
The launch of the book on April 5th at the FEPS premises and online, comes at a timely moment, when the European Commission is about to launch a new circular economy package that will amongst other cover the governance of sustainable products. Making supply chains circular also means making them independent from raw materials sourced from outside the EU and associated price and supply shocks. This aspect that has (unfortunately) become all the more urgent in recent days and weeks and provides further support to the need to implement the wide-ranging policies that make good jobs and affordable, high-quality consumption independent of ever-increasing resource use – which in short is what the circular economy is all about.