02.2021 #Homo Circularis
About circularity and reality. And what it all has to do with banana bread.
Eveline Lemke, Charléne Nessel
Which statement best describes the future of the Circular Economy? Reality is becoming circular? Or is circularity becoming real? Is there a difference? And is it even true? Aren’t we still miles away from a Circular Economy?
The Circular Economy and the Green Deal are the EU’s big topics, chosen by Ursula von der Leyen. So far, it has hardly met with any criticism, because it promises green growth opportunities and reaches new target groups. It also provides answers as to how we might survive on this planet after all. However, the sustainability movement has learned over the past 35 years that decoupling growth from resource consumption is a difficult thing to do. Moreover, the danger of getting lost in the green deal because of all the green buzzwords and green washing is huge. Can the Circular Economy provide answers that offer orientation in the green jungle?
Why we need to rewrite the Circular Economy: Confusion in neo-ecology.
Currently, there is a presentation of the “Zukunftsinstitut” (German for Foresight Institute) on the table, which depicts so-called buzz words and trends on a map that looks like a map of the Berlin subway: Bio Boom, Sharing Economy, Quality of Life, Mindfulness, Green Tech, Social Business, Post-Growth Economy, Sense Economy, Post-Carbon Society, Circular Economy, Zero-Waste and many more. Futurologists have put these megatrends of neo-ecology on the map as stops. Each transfer option is an interface between two trend terms. Anyone boarding the Neo-Ecology subway line passes buzz-word stations.
The impression is created that neo-ecology is one-way traffic. If you switch, you leave sustainability. But sustainability encompasses 17 goals and thus more than just one future trend. However, achieving multiple green ideas and other important systemic trends at the same time in the map is impossible. What is the purpose of a map? Maps are meant to provide orientation. They are supposed to help us humans get where we want to go. But the map confuses. At the same time, the Zukunftsinstitut’s map reflects public perception. Is the map just the public’s distorted perception or does this very confusion express the need for clarity in the discussion about future terms and the embedding of sustainable terms?
Right now is the time to provide some clarifications on the philosophy of the Circular Economy and at the same time it is a good opportunity to describe some prerequisites for a Circular Society, which as a concept is still completely missing from the map. It makes sense to first recall key differences between the Circular Economy and classical economic philosophies, and then to address EU policies and goals.
The economic philosophies of the past were all not only oblivious to nature, they also reduced mankind to a few motivational drivers. It was assumed that we are a homo economicus. According to Darwin, we would only survive as the fittest. Consequently, mankind enforces its very own survival interests with avarice and greed. But any management technique can be used for good and for evil. This is part of the systemic paradigm shift. The goal and context, as well as the decisions made, determine whether the result is a good or a bad. But this presupposes that each technique is combined with an ethic. It also requires that we learn to think in systems and use systemic scenarios as a basis for decision-making. The Circular Economy opens up the possibility of building a bridge here.
The mirror of the inhuman can bring us insight into how we want to behave. If our inner drive is not fed by ethical, emotional, empathic principles, but from the demand to get higher, faster, further, the consequences become apparent: Climate change as a mirror of our obliviousness to nature; increasing expectations, lack of self-confidence and increased depression as a mirror of our social dilemma due to social media and co.; industrial slaughterhouses as a mirror of our estrangement from empathy between humans and animals. The list could go on here and become long.
In order to exist in harmony with nature on this planet, we must combine our technology with ethics. This is the only way to create a new social utopia that holds up a different mirror to us: Economizing without pushing the limits of growth. Social media influencers who use their reach not to flaunt their great lives and show what higher, faster, further means today, but to create positive impact for the planet and us humans. A diet that does not support suffering and disease, but treats other living beings and this planet with respect. For example, by baking blueberry pie instead of banana bread. That’s not only just as delicious, but also regional and uses fewer resources.
At its core, all debates about a sustainable economy revolve around giving economic technology a moral that is distancing ourselves from exploitation, obliviousness and inhumanity. The philosophy of the Circular Economy therefore differs from previous economic philosophies because it ascribes a role to nature that has a value of its own. It starts with the assumption of an emotional human being who also behaves rationally, intelligently and learning. It assumes not only that we as Homo Sapiens are shaped by our IQ, but also by our EQ, or emotional intelligence. Homo Circularis thus becomes an element in the natural system and is only one of many species of this time.
In a Circular Society, people are empowered to fit into systems of a world of interdependencies, webs of relationships, natural rules and particularities. People in this circular utopia do not place themselves on a hierarchically higher level than all other species of this world. They do not play blame game all the time. They have respect and take responsibility for mistakes. They are trained to acquire resilient survival mechanisms. And they know they are equals among equals. They feel part of a whole. So, they practice respectful treatment of life on this planet.
Many people in the green movement would perhaps claim that they are already making their contribution to a Circular Society. After all, they separate waste, contribute to the energy transition, save electricity, change their mobility behavior and switch from diesel to an electric car or even convert to veganism. These are all good steps for entering a Circular Society. Because in doing so, we are expanding our understanding of the Circular Economy. What is still missing is a basic cognitive understanding. We have to understand that a Circular Society can only exist if we understand that we do not tick in a purely rational way, as we are described as homo economicus, but that we are human beings who are not only flesh and blood, but also feelings, subconsciousness and energy. Not a linear one-way street, but rather a network in which nature and the living beings on this planet are interconnected. Our task is not to continue to approach the Circular Economy from behind, looking first at technology, then at society, and then at the individual. But to start with what concerns ourselves, that is, with and within ourselves. How else are we to change a system in which we keep ourselves imprisoned? Gandhi recognized this: “Change yourself and you change the world.” But not only by properly separating garbage at home, but by going in search of our closeness to nature. Every Homo Circularis who finds answers to this question forms the cornerstone for a functioning Circular Society, in which a Circular Economy can exist.
How the new description can succeed: Challenges for the Circular Economy.
At the beginning of the new description of a Circular Economy we can find a Homo Circularis, who has to ask himself some mindset questions while building the new utopia: How does the socio-ecological transformation succeed? What does Circular Economy mean? What should the future of a good life look like? In the search for answers, he must confront radical beliefs. On the one side are the critics of ecological modernization. They do not believe in climate change and are afraid of change. Ecological transformation is neither necessary nor possible, they say. “We can’t crawl back under the stone after all.” On the other side are the technology critics. A Circular Economy is not enough, they say, because we would still be dependent on technology that keeps luring us into rebound traps: “Green technologies can’t work, we’re just technologizing ourselves deeper into misery.” Both voices are justified.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, between crawling under the stone and green technologies that further exploit nature. Progress means learning from mistakes. The Circular Economy is a further development of economic philosophy, which should build a bridge between a highly technocratic world full of dependencies and lack of empathy to the laws of nature.
Using the example of the energy transition shows the tasks still to be solved and the dilemma of rebound effects: Even if consumables are produced in a renewable way and contribute to the reduction of the greenhouse effect, the energy production plants are far from being eco-friendly. They, too, must become technically recyclable. That means wind turbines and solar plants must be recyclable. Only in this way they can be left in economic use in the long term. After all, the rare metals that make up a large proportion of wind turbines, PV modules and electric cars will soon be in demand in the same way that oil was once. We must also be able to recover them from products. We must use instead of consume.
Mirroring the human cruelty of our economic activity, we see how nearly 100 billion tons of raw materials are dug out of this planet every year. Not even 9% of them remain in the economic cycle. The unimaginable dimension of over 90 billion tons of raw materials per year disappear in unknown uses, as waste in the landscape or as burnt emissions in the air. Copper or titanium mines in Chile or China make it extremely clear to us how green technologies take their toll on nature. There are tasks ahead of us here, otherwise we will not achieve the vision of a world without waste in the Green Deal. Then we continue to do what generations before us have already been unable to solve – only a little differently, by building the destruction of nature on good moral principles.
The European Commission got very specific in defining the Circular Economy, which was surprising. Its definition dates back to 2017. It puts solving the above-mentioned tasks on our agenda. And it corresponds almost entirely to the above-described philosophy.
According to this, the value of products and materials should be preserved as long as possible in an economy. Waste and the use of resources must be minimized. The material cycle should be closed within the economic system, so that products that have reached the end of their useful life serve again as a resource to create value in the future. What is missing from the definition, but has been introduced by the EU, is that in the future there should be no more hazardous substances in circulation. All toxic substances are to be removed from the economic cycle and destroyed. The vision of a world without waste is thus not clearly formulated, but it is not ruled out. Above all, the steps are going in the right direction. One step should be the end of incineration as soon as all hazardous substances have been eliminated. This raises the question of whether the strategic phase-out of incineration should not be negotiated today?
The EU still has a lot of work to do to achieve the goal. And the decision-makers know this, too, because Europe has some experience and has also already spent a lot of time developing the Circular Economy. As early as 1975, the EU issued the first directive on waste management, followed by far-reaching Circular Economy directives in 1996. Then in 2005, the closure of landfills in Europe has been announced. Since 2017, there has been an EU Plastic Strategy and in 2019, the EU Circular Economy Package came into force. This is cause for celebration for the community of C2C innovators. They can take hope that finally also the eco-design guidelines will be adapted and take effect especially in the member states. C2C based on the design principle of Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart specifies how optimal products for a Circular Economy should be created to ensure clean and endless usability. Those who deal with C2C quickly find out the simple principle of a biological and a technical cycle, according to which consumables may be assigned to the biological cycle and usage goods to the technical cycle. The example here is again the energy transition. If renewable energy is produced from wind, water, sun or biomass and is used as a consumer good, the technical equipment used to produce it should be non-toxic, but durable, dismountable, repairable and recyclable. Therefore, mono-materials are mainly used in the C2C world, which are not glued, but only screwed, so that everything remains repairable by design. Finally, the RESOLVE principle provides a good theoretical basis that works like an economic tool. RESOLVE stands for (REnew, REuse, REpair, REfurbish, REcycle, Share, Optimize, Close the Loop, Virtualize, Exchange).
One of the main tasks of the Circular Economy is to overcome the rebound effect. Eco-effectiveness is the buzzword here. The rebound effect arises unintentionally. When coal replaced the cutting of trees for energy during the first phase of industrial development, hoping that Europe’s forests would recover, people in London were already in danger of suffocating from coal emissions. So, petroleum replaced coal, and later nuclear energy. What followed, however, was ever more rapid development and the devouring of more and more resources. There is not much sign of the decoupling of resources. And this is exactly what endangers our own existence. Now it is time for Homo Circularis to prove his IQ, his EQ and his ability to learn!
What we need to do to make the Circular Economy real: Recycling quotas or EU plastic tax – which works better? A debate that goes round in circles when politics don’t decide.
In early November 2020, the EU’s institutions were able to agree on the next long-term budget 2021-2027 – one component is a plastic tax that should take effect on January 1, 2021. At that point, it still seemed as if China’s Green Fence policy would get Europe moving. But appearances are deceptive: the German debate is slowly moving in circles and the German government is ignoring the issue of the Circular Economy. Only the handling of plastic bags was discussed and decided in the Bundestag – there should be less of them. But that is not enough!
Anyone who now thinks that consumers will notice the tax and that it could therefore have a steering effect is mistaken. Because under the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF for short), which was adopted on November 10, 2020, contributions from EU member states are calculated on the basis of the amount of non-recycled plastic packaging waste. This makes it clear that it cannot be a tax, but a calculation method that governs the EU budget and their national contributions to it. So, let’s call it a levy. It will cost about €800 per ton of non-recycled plastic packaging and is intended to increase collection and recycling efforts. The current industry debate about whether product policy would be more effective than material-specific quotas seems to be mutating into a sham.
It is obvious that the federal government is not moving forward decisively enough. Against the backdrop of the Corona crisis, it could support the beleaguered recycling industry by providing grants for investments in sorting facilities or manufacturers for the introduction of product passports to track products and materials. This is where potential can be leveraged directly. We will have to make use of the entire toolbox of regulatory instruments to move forward. This includes not only an ambitious increase in collection and recycling rates, but also product bans on single-use product packaging (which after all accounts for 40% of plastic waste) and an eco-design directive that delivers what the name promises.
Developing a circular industry by 2050 is not utopia. It is a realistic vision. But it needs many who have understood this and are working towards it.
Circular Economy by 2050 – What else does that mean? Recent studies on the consumption of resources on our planet show that up to 100 billion tons of material, liquids or substances are taken from this planet to satisfy our industrial needs. Of course, drinking water, industrial water and biomass are the materials that we can now call the most circular. Only after third place do various metals, for example paper or asphalt, follow. In total, not even 9% of all products flow in a cycle. And science has insufficient information about where 90 billion tons of substances and materials remain each year that we previously extracted from the planet. How is this possible?
On the occasion of the 5th European Resources Forum 2020, the call for an “Intergovernmental Panel for Resources” became louder and louder. Similar to the research work for the climate by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change), the knowledge work could then contribute to the development of the Circular Economy. Hope is raised by the fact that recently the number of observed research papers has increased. If just a few years ago there were only about 300 publications on circular topics, last year there were about 3000. A start, after all. But this will not be enough to adequately describe or even solve the issue.
The economic dimension of steering mechanisms requires communication. Prof. Stahl teaches the “performance economy” as a building block of the Circular Economy. He describes how an economy that repairs, rebuilds and upcycles more than in a “Take, Make, Dispose” society will also have to pay higher wages and salaries for these very services, i.e. for performance. Reducing or even abolishing taxes on labor suddenly makes a lot of sense as a steering tool. Sharing models, using instead of owning and “product as a service” fit in well here. The taxation of C02 or greenhouse-damaging gases complements the steering instrument. This is how the Circular Economy becomes concrete. And what should a future without Circular Economy even look like?
In the end, the reality is that we can’t build a future without circularity. And circularity cannot exist without embedding itself in reality. A business-as-usual won’t work, nor will the idea that we can say goodbye entirely to previous conveniences. We need a bridge. The Circular Economy can provide that bridge. But an economic theory of circularity will only become a reality when we, as humans, move into action. How does a Homo Circularis act? He repairs instead of throwing away. He grows vegetables instead of importing them. He talks about issues of self-governance. Here is room for discussion on how we as Homo Circularis engage in a Circular Society. To build together the bridge to a future – for our grandchildren.
So, what does all of this have to do with banana bread again? Actually nothing. But somehow everything. It’s about the little things in life and the question of what a good life can look like. And how nice would it be to live in a Circular Society, in which we learned to listen more to our subconscious mind and create circular impact directly by ourselves? And at last: Banana bread sounded juicier than “a philosophical treatise on the limits of the Circular Economy”.