Short series: Circular Economy in brief Part 3. Disposal
Author: Alonso Muñoz Solís
The aim of this 3-piece series of papers is to introduce the reader to the characteristics of a circular economic system. I will do so by comparing each of the phases of the linear system with those put forward by the proponents of a new circular economy, mainly the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. I will use their definition for the sake of clarity, and also because, even though there are many similar definitions of circular economy, the European Commission often refers to this body as a leading voice in the field, due to its rigorous work and detailed case studies regarding the topic (Kirchherr, Reike, & Hekkert, 2017; European Commission, 2015).
In the first paper, I explained the need of a new system and the virtues of a circular one. In the second one, I commented on how Energy and Production of goods should operate under a truly circular system. At doing so, I introduced basic principles of a circular system. In this final paper, I will analyze the current disposal alternatives under a linear system, then proceed to finish the short series with closing remarks about the topic.
As it was mentioned in the last article, when appropriately implemented, a circular system saves us the need to answer the life-long question societies have struggled during the last 200 years: What should be done with products after they have been used? Let’s begin by understating what alternatives are possible under the current linear scheme:
End of life
As mentioned in the introduction, our current development model directly correlates with material footprint. This footprint refers to the total amount of raw material extracted globally to meet the economy’s consumption demand (United Nations, 2018), including metals, organics, fossil fuels, etc. Not surprisingly, waste management plays a central role in the circular economy, as it determines how the waste hierarchy is put into practice. (European Commission, 2015).
As the United Nations stated in its 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report: “For all types of materials, developed countries have at least double the per-capita footprint of developing countries. In particular, the material footprint for fossil fuels is more than four times higher for developed than developing countries” (United Nations, 2018). This means that the richest countries have the biggest material footprint, but as developing countries grow their economies, their per capita material footprint has grown steadily as well (United Nations, 2018).
Overall, worldwide material consumption has expanded rapidly, as has material footprint per capita (United Nations, 2019) Therefore, the daunting task of decoupling economic growth and development, as development for all is desired, but under the current system, it means even more environmental degradation. Important to note, however, is that the reason the per-capita material footprint grows as the country’s development increases, could be attributed to a systemic design flaw.
Development is more about access to benefits than ownership over them, but the current linear economic system encourages citizens to own goods to solve their needs. People want lighting, not lightbulbs. People want transportation, not tires. People want drinks, not disposable plastic bottles. Waste generation right now is collateral damage that no one seeks induced by suboptimal design. That is why well-designed policies and legal instruments are necessary to enable the fundamental shift towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns (United Nations, 2019).
As has already been explained, in the current linear system that we live in, only a very small fraction of the original product value is recovered after use, which results in enormous amounts of waste. To deal with this, each country uses a waste hierarchy that establishes priorities that should be followed for waste management. This waste hierarchy ranks waste management options according to their sustainability, with the aim of encouraging the options that deliver the best overall environmental outcome. The order usually goes from prevention to preparation for reuse, to recycling and finally to landfilling (European Commission, 2015). Let me briefly explain each of these options before introducing the circular model proposal.
The most common end-of-life destiny for expired and excess products around the world is landfill (Bhada-Tata, 2012). A landfill site is an industrial complex where waste is buried in a strategic manner. The ground underneath is prepared and waterproofed before the site begins operation. Waste is then spread evenly in layers and compacted with heavy machinery. This way, the landfill grows until its maximum capacity is reached, moment when they are expected to be shut down.
Given this initial explanation, it’s easy to see that landfills violate the principle of two cycles, mixing, burying, and compacting organic and technical materials all together. Landfills should have drains to collect lixiviates and a water plant to treat them. They should also be equipped with gas-collecting pipes to capture the methane produced by the decomposition of the organic matter.
In some landfills the collected methane is burned to produce electricity, others just burn it for safety reasons. Given the high-pressured, hypoxic environment that forms in the lower layers of a landfill, decomposition of the buried organic matter is slowed to the point of almost stoppage (Bhada-Tata, 2012). This means that, in the end, landfills are places where societies hide their waste for future generations to deal with.
Landfill generally have low operating costs, and they are often used where land is cheap (Bhada-Tata, 2012). Currently, 52% of United States’ waste ends up in a landfill (EPA 2019). In Costa Rica, about 58% of municipal solid waste is organic (Contraloría General de la República, 2016), and most of it ends up in landfills as well. Reducing the landfilling of organic waste is particularly urgent from a climate perspective, so as to reduce methane emissions from its anaerobic breakdown (European Commission, 2017). Important to note that right now, Costa Rica does not generate electricity from the collected methane from any of its landfills.
For the scope of this paper, it is safe to say that landfills, that are quite literally product graveyards, operating completely against the aims of a circular model.
Waste to energy plants
A popular waste treatment facility in developing countries is the aforementioned waste-to-energy plants (WTE). These industrial complexes convert everyday waste into electricity using it as a fuel to power its turbines. This is what most European countries are now planning to do with their trash (European Commission, 2017).
Different technologies have different residues, and different legislative bodies have established different regulations (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2019; European Commission, 2017; Munawer, 2018; Seltenrich, 2016). In Europe, for example, when waste cannot be prevented or recycled, recovering its energy content is seen preferable (in their waste hierarchy) in comparison to burying it in a landfill, in both environmental and economic terms (European Commission, 2015). This is why member states are required to separate recyclables before converting the rest into energy (European Commission, 2015).
Even with these regulations in place, according to a Commission study, in 2014 approximately 1.5% of the European Union’s total energy consumption was met by recovering energy from waste through incineration, which is not a lot. After incineration, the waste is reduced to ash which is about 10 per cent of its original volume (National Environment Agency, Singapore, 2020)
In the USA, where landfill is more popular than WTE, prior separation is not required on a national level and therefore, most of the existing WTE plants process materials that would have been sorted by their European counterparts. In Costa Rica, WTE plants have not been approved by the environmental authorities, even when several projects have been proposed them.
In a perfect circular model, there would be little need for waste-to-energy plants at all. However, in the model being implemented in Europe, for example, it is part of the waste hierarchy aimed at helping the continent transition towards a circular model (European Commission, 2015; European Commission, 2017).
Even when WTE plants are often talked about as a whole, in reality, different technologies have different outcomes. Some of them produce very little pollution, have odor traps, and are very efficient in regards of how much electricity (or heat) they generate per unit of waste they process, these tend to be, the most expensive ones, of course. Amager Bakke, for example, Denmark’s state of the art and ultra-modern WTE plant, costed around US$670 million to its taxpayers, while TuasOne Waste-To-Energy Plant in Singapore costed US$537 million, with a processing capacity of 3600 tons of waste per day.
Other, much simpler plants, less controls, less efficiency and produce more problems. Detroit waste-to-energy plant ceased operations in 2021 after years of emissions concerns like air emissions violations and the constant complain from its surrounding neighbors (Redling, 2021). With China no longer accepting imports of post-consumer recyclables in 2018, United States waste facilities are struggling to manage the sharp increase in volume. And Waste-to-energy conversion plants face, despite success in Europe, significant popular acceptance and political challenges because of their air quality issues.
The last alternative I will address in this paper, is recycling. Even when portraited as the best option in the linear system, what is understood today as “recycling” divers a lot from how recycling should be done in a circular system.
In the current linear system, recycling is seen to recollect the waste that can be, somehow, recovered and reused as raw material into a new product. This usually happens when the recycled material is cheaper than the raw, extracted material. Using broken glass as raw material is much cheaper than using sands and manufacturing glass from it, for example. Therefore, the manufacturing companies have a financial incentive to recycle. The same happens with most metals, and therefore, their recycling price covers the recovery and redistribution (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). This is not always the case with plastics, and given their ubiquity, it has become a serious pollution problem around the world. This characteristic, as well, is one of the main drivers of the WTP explained in the previous subsection.
In contrast to the linear system’s recycling, as explained in the first piece of this short series, in a circular system recycling is only the last resort after reusing and remanufacturing have been tried. Also, recycling is seen as part of a comprehensive system that starts with the product design, right from its components design to the material selection.
End of life in a circular system
Circularity has a different fate in mind for products that are no longer useful. As we have seen, the circular model aims at keeping maximum material utility for as long as possible. To do so, it encourages collecting the materials that belong to the technical cycle, and then implementing one of the cycles of repairing, refurbishing, or recycling (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013).
This means, for example, that when a house oven is broken, it should be fixed. The materials that are broken should be refurbished so that they can be used again in another oven. And the parts that cannot be fixed, should be recycled. The way waste is collected and managed can lead either to valuable materials finding their way back into the economy, or to an inefficient system where valuable waste ends up in landfills or WTE, with potentially harmful environmental impacts and significant economic losses (European Commission, 2015).
Something similar happens with the biological cycle, where circularity requires the collection of all biological waste and its processing in industrial composting facilities. It is an alarming fact that household food waste constitutes the greatest proportion of total food waste in developed countries (Jurgilevich, et al., 2016). And as explained earlier, given that most of the waste is currently going to landfills or WTE plants, the biological cycle never closes.
Composting avoids the production of methane gas, and also produces nutritious soil that can be used as fertilizer in plantations and gardens. A few cities within a few countries have already implemented separated collection of materials that belong to the biological cycle.
For both collection systems (one for each cycle) to be fully implemented, there is a need to rethink and restructure the whole waste collecting process that is now in place in most systems around the world. The current model, that puts all items together, regardless of their composition, is very simple to manage, yet very environmentally and economically damaging.
As was introduced and explained in this series, a circular economic model offers a very practical pathway towards sustainability. A system that does not generate waste and has no need for extraction or disposal, has much better chances of achieving sustainability than a linear one, especially in a fast-growing economic system like the current one.
With design changes, a clean-powered system that can reuse, remanufacture, and recycle its products can be realized. In technical terms, we already have the science to support such a system, and the more new technological advances are made, the easier it will become. New materials are being invented, better design tools are being developed and smarter sensors are being produced. The cellular network technology 5G, for example, offers the possibility of connecting hundreds of devices that will enable companies to keep track of their products’ location, condition, and availability (Schwab, 2016; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016).
At the same time, for a circular model to be fully implemented, a complete change in the operating structure of the economic system has to be executed. In the end, a truly circular economy requires us to understand how parts influence one another within a whole, and the relationship of the whole to each of the parts. Elements need to be considered in relation to their environmental and social contexts; this provokes all kinds of new questions and challenges, as it will require a different mode of thinking and a different approach to our current problems.
This transition will only be accomplished if the right incentives are placed by policy makers. The European Union and Chinese government are slowly but steadily moving towards a more circular model. Can this really be attained, or will it be another empty approach to tackle the current environmental crises? No one really knows. But for anyone paying attention, it is quite clear that the current economic system needs an overhaul. As this new model takes on a clearer shape, the value of the well-defined paradigm provided by the circular economy should not be underestimated.
To read Part 1 visit https://www.ideasforpeace.org/content/circulareconomypart1/
To read Part 2 visit https://www.ideasforpeace.org/content/circulareconomypart2/
List of References
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. (2019). UK ENERGY IN BRIEF 2018. London: National Statistics.
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Schwab, K. (2016). The fourth industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business.
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Author’s Short Bio
Professor Alonso Muñoz (Costa Rica) is Instructor in the Department of Environment and Development at the University for Peace (UPEACE), where he coordinates the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in Responsible Management and Sustainable Economic Development (RMSED) and the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in Development Studies and Diplomacy (DSD). He holds a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Costa Rica and an M.Sc. in Business Administration. He has worked in the private sector, and has volunteered on various national and international projects regarding peace education, migration, environmental impact of systems and Social Enterprises. His most recent work revolves around the transition towards a more Circular Economy, a field that he feels passionate about, and for which he has high expectations. You can contact Professor Muñoz at firstname.lastname@example.org