The circular economy is needed now more than ever. The USA alone produces around 260 million tons (US short tons) of municipal solid waste per year from homes and businesses, amounting to around 2.03 kilos of waste per person per day (EPA 2015). However, this represents only 3% of all the solid waste in the US economy; the other 97% is generated by agricultural and industrial (e.g., mining and manufacturing) processes. If the total US waste stream (including wastewater and waste generated for exported goods) is allotted on a per capita basis, each American is responsible for 1.8 million kilograms of waste per year.
Only about a third of waste from homes and businesses is recycled; the rate for industrial waste is much lower, with only 2% of the total waste stream currently being recycled. Meanwhile, the 2,000 active landfills in the US that hold the bulk of household trash are reaching their capacity. The USA should recycle more. Doing so would reduce pollution, slow climate change, and mitigate resource depletion and habitat destruction from mining and logging.
However, sadly, the recycling industry faces problems. Prices for scrap metals and paper have declined in recent years and China is no longer interested in accepting metal and plastic waste from the US. The systemic challenge lies in collecting waste in tiny, mixed amounts; transporting it to a handling facility; sorting it; cleaning it; repackaging it; and then transporting it again. This almost always costs more and requires more energy than just discarding the stuff at a local landfill.
Waste is what economists call an externality: it’s never an intended, and often not a priced component of the production process, though it does inevitably impose costs – which are often borne by society as a whole. The manufacturer’s mandate is to produce more, and this translates to the strategy of planned obsolescence – making products that are meant to be replaced quickly rather than being endlessly reused and repaired.
What is needed to circularise the economy? Two things.
First, an overall systemic commitment to the project. This means buy-in from industry, government, and citizens. Make things in such a way that recycling is easier. Focus on extending producer responsibility. Automobile manufacturers, for example, already use a wide range of recycled materials in their products, and like to take credit for doing so. But, making the auto industry truly circular will require participation throughout the entire supply chain, support from government via incentives and regulation, and consumer education. Other industries, such as consumer electronics, lag far behind the auto makers, so there is truly an enormous task ahead.
The other thing we need to do will be an even bigger challenge: we need to ditch the growth imperative. As long as profit maximisation and overall growth are the implicit goals of the economy, recycling will remain a boutique industry driven largely by relatively rich people who can afford to assuage their ecological consciences.
A truly circular economy will be one in which all industrial processes are harmless to people and nature. This means that all “growth” will have to occur in the cultural sphere rather than in flows of materials and energy. We must focus on human happiness rather than GDP; on rates of participation in education and the arts rather than quarterly sales figures.
Currently, we are far from having a circular economy, and that gap is embodied in overflowing landfills and giant barges of trash with nowhere to go – as well as a plastic gyre the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. Will the monuments to our civilization consist of mountains of refuse? We can certainly do far better, but that will require us to make a systemic commitment to building a circular, steady-state economy whose aim is beauty and happiness rather than growth for growth’s sake.
Trash in America, Frontier Group; https://frontiergroup.org/reports/fg/trash-america
J. McCarthy, “The US is rapidly running out of landfillspace”, Global Citizen; www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/us-landfills-are-filling-up
“Extended producer responsibility: the answer to cuttingwaste in the UK?”, The Guardian; www.theguardian.com/suez-circular-economy-zone/2017/may/10/extended-producer-responsibility-the-answer-to-cutting-waste-in-the-uk
The Natural Step, https://thenaturalstep.org