Editorial: The pandemic imagine a world without waste

To understand the vast problem of waste, it helps to start by thinking about disposable dental floss.

If you are unfamiliar with this particular oral health instrument, imagine a plastic fork with two teeth connected by a length of dental floss. It is designed for a single cleaning occasion between the teeth. People with functional fingers do not need them; dental floss alone will do. But, dang, these little guys are so convenient and affordable. Amazon sells a stash of 540 for less than $ 15.

And when the day’s teeth cleaning is done, the dental floss is thrown away. It can be recycled, but there is a good chance it will go to landfill and outlive its users and many generations of their descendants.

I don’t mean to say that disposable dental flosses are singularly pernicious. They are no better or worse than a million other products that Americans buy and use every day. But they are a useful substitute for illustrating the unsustainability of our current business model, which relies on extracting resources and then relentlessly sending them one-way from the manufacturing plant to the garbage heap.

The so-called linear economy – or a “take, make, waste” system – that has been the basis of our industrialized society for about 150 years has caused so much damage to the environment that we could simply burn out. existence unless something changes soon.

Lucky for us, there is a better way, which has recently started to gain traction outside of the world of economists and environmentalists. It’s called the circular economy because it envisions a system in which every product, building, vehicle – every thing – is designed to have a long and useful lifespan and an afterlife.

It’s not about recycling bottles and cans better or using a plastic bag more than once, although large-scale, industry-wide recycling is one of them. In their 2020 book “The circular economy handbook“, Peter Lacy, Jessica Long and Wesley Spindler explain it as” keeping products and resources in use for as long as possible and, at the end of use, recycling (or “looping”) the material. their components and materials in the zero-waste value chain system. It is a fundamental shift in the way we manufacture and consume everything, be it food, clothing, buildings or vehicles, with the aim of reducing or even eliminating waste and in doing so, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Home composting provides a model of how the circular economy works at its most basic level. Food scraps and fallen trees go into a compost bin, decompose, and eventually turn into nutrient-rich soil to help grow more food and trees. It is a loop of production and consumption that repeats itself endlessly, without waste or toxic by-products that must be buried in a deep hole. But this concept can be applied to just about any industry.

Imagine it, a world without waste. It sounds incredibly utopian. How could we live without generating waste every time we clean our teeth? But it is doable. In fact, we to have it is done. Humans relied on a circular pattern for the vast majority of their time on this planet – until the Industrial Revolution ushered in the exploitative, dysfunctional, and unhealthy relationship with the resources we have today.

In addition, we don’t have much of a choice.

Energy-efficient homes and electric cars and trucks will only allow us to meet part of our climate change goals, Ellen MacArthur said at a recent press conference. net zero virtual chat hosted by The New York Times. MacArthur is a former competitive sailor who left the sport over a decade ago to start the eponymous foundation which functions as a kind of think tank on the circular economy. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to habitable levels will require changing the way we use land and make things like metals, plastics, cement and food. “We will not achieve the climate target we have set for ourselves without changing the way these products are made,” she said.

It’s a big order, but there might not be a better time to undertake such significant structural changes as during the post-pandemic recovery over the next few years, according to Mayuri Wijayasundara, circular economy researcher at Deakins University in Australia. People have already been forced to accept massive shifts in their habits and expectations, she said, and could be open to the permanent changes that would be needed to move to a circular economy. Supply chains are likely to continue to be strained, opening the door to smaller local manufacturing and a growing repair economy. Indeed, it was a major disruption to the plastic recycling market in 2018 – when the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, China, shut the door on most plastics from other countries – that prompted the public and policymakers start embracing the circular economy in a way, she said.

What does a circular economy look like in practice?

Food systems that collect all waste and turn it into compost for the next harvest. Sewer pipes used to generate heat Product packaging that can be composted with yard waste. A reusable plastic soda bottle shared between beverage companies that can be used over and over again. Clothing rental services that offer users the same advantages as “fast fashion” without having the same unnecessary results.

These are not far-fetched ideas. They do happen, albeit in small scale businesses. Denver is experimenting with a sewer heat recovery project. Coca-Cola uses a universal bottle program in Brazil. California lawmakers are considering a landmark plastic packaging reduction law based on circular economics principles. Several clothing rental services, such as Nuuly and Rent the track, Already exists.

These are encouraging signs, but a few scattered agendas may not be enough to effect the rapid change the world needs.

It’s frustrating that there isn’t much that an individual consumer can do to initiate change, other than supporting businesses that embrace a circular business model and shun those that don’t.

“The point is, we can’t change it individually,” MacArthur said, adding that “the system has to evolve to make the changes for us so that we have the choices we need to become circular. We need to rethink the packaging and then the choice of the consumer becomes simpler.

Ultimately, the circular economy is not about changing consumer behavior, an approach that has underpinned waste reduction efforts for decades and clearly isn’t working. Change must start at the top, and this will likely require government intervention to shift responsibility for waste from consumers to the companies that manufacture and distribute the products. Extended Producer Responsibility, as it’s called, is the basis of California’s Plastic Packaging Reduction Act. “Right to Repair Laws, which several U.S. states are exploring, are also useful because they require manufacturers to build products, devices, and gadgets so that consumers can have them fixed if they malfunction, rather than throwing them away and buying them. new versions.

Taxes targeted at “sin” have been helpful in reducing smoking while helping to pay the societal costs of harmful products; they could also be used to reduce waste. California may soon experiment with this concept if voters adopt a proposed plastic tax in the 2022 poll. If we’re going to reinvent California and the world, without the wasted 540 disposable dental floss and millions of other things we use and throw away every day, someone has to take the first step.

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About Gail Mena

Gail Mena

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