Circularity means different things in physics, biology and economics. But what do different narratives imply for European policy?
Closing the loop’ is the European Commission’s slogan for promoting the Circular Economy agenda. The choice encapsulates the idea that in order to improve certain economic and environmental standards, Europe must transition from an open-ended and linear economy to a closed one. From physics and biology, we learn that closed systems are never perfectly isolated, or really closed. This is because they lose energy to surrounding systems in thermodynamic processes and also mutually communicate and influence each other in biological autopoietic systems. The economy also can never be entirely closed. Matter will always change and lose functionality internally, energy will be lost at varying degrees and a ‘Circular Economy’ will always communicate, shape and be shaped by other economies through trade. Based on these considerations, this article looks at why a circular economy could not realistically aim to be considered as a static state, but rather as an aspirational process to be monitored, managed and improved.
Our current economy is still largely based on a linear get-change-consume-discard approach. If this linearity continues unchanged, we risk exhausting Earth’s limited resources with too much ‘getting’, and we compromise the availability of other resources through our current rate of discarding. A circular economy attempts to close that system, bringing the two loose ends together – of ‘get’ and ‘discard’. But does the Circular Economy mean that just any circularity would suffice? The answer is no. Simply transforming the economy into a circular one would not immediately improve efficiency and reduce resource use and waste. For example, if the energy necessary for transforming a material that has been disposed of is higher than obtaining a raw material, we must question whether this is a desirable solution. Also, does that process produce more pollution, such as in the form of liquid residues or CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change? This questioning brings us to the conclusion that even within circularity, some less energy intensive and less polluting processes are preferred over others.
A useful concept borrowed from waste management to address this issue is the ‘waste hierarchy’. The hierarchy states that processes that require less energy and less new material in order to maintain the cycle should be prioritized over others which involve high energy and material loss. That is to say that if we reduce the amount of waste we produce, through better design and packaging, the system will be more efficient than if we choose to reuse discarded materials. When comparing reuse with recycling however, reusing a material requires less energy than putting it through a recycling process that makes it a relatively new product again. Another step further down the hierarchy, recycling is more efficient than recovering materials by transforming them into something else, such as energy production through incineration. At the bottom end of the hierarchy, disposal is the least efficient, since it removes the possibility of closing the system.
Looking more broadly outside internal circularity processes, a circular economy also behaves as a biological autopoietic system due to constant communication and exchanges, continuously shaping and being shaped by other systems. In economic terms, this means that even if it were functioning according to the highest internal standards and efficiency, a singular economy will never be entirely isolated from other systems. The exchanges it makes with others will impact the system itself and will also affect other systems, mutually and continuously. Economically, this could mean that by reducing Europe’s raw materials usage, the costs of such inputs would potentially drop globally, creating an incentive for other markets to raise their consumption and resource-intensity. As a significant importer, such increases would mean that imported products would come with higher aggregated resource-intensity, raising the relative levels of materials and energy that Europeans absorb on the consumption side. This could happen even if Europe’s own production moves away from such unsustainable business types.
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