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The Circular Economy Series (pt. 6): International Circular Economy Examples

In the final installment of our Circular Economy Blog Series, we will be exploring the ways in which the circular economy’s (CE) principles have been conceptualized and implemented outside of the United States. In other countries, the concept has been widely embraced and possesses a more robust history. There are many examples of countries (or collection of countries) that have long histories with CE: Japan, Germany, The European Union, Brazil and others.

Some of these countries’ circular economic policies focus on conserving limited resources, such as land. Two of these countries include Japan and Germany, who are recognized as frontrunners in resource conservation. They have implemented a variety of waste management programs that reduce the need for new raw materials and free up land that would otherwise be used for waste.

For example, in 1991, Japan adopted a Resource Recycling Promotion Law that ensured recyclable waste’s efficient utilization. Similarly, in 1996, Germany adopted their German Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act that mandated the prevention of waste and the recycling of remaining waste into material or energy. As a result, Japan and Germany both have top-notch waste management systems where very little waste ends up in landfills. For example, in Japan, an astonishing 84% of plastic waste is recycled, yet most of that plastic is burned for energy. Germany relies on a similar system, so much so that the country was in danger of running out of waste to burn, causing them to import it from other countries.

Despite being frontrunners in this area, both nations have room to improve and are on track to modernize and ramp up their efforts. The World Economic Forum and Japan have recently announced a partnership where they will focus on creating a circular economy for plastic and electronic waste. Additionally, in 2020, The European Union announced their Circular Economy Action Plan where 27 partnering nations, including Germany, committed to “mak[ing] sustainable products the norm in the EU.” This plan will focus on implementing an easy transition to a CE which utilizes its resources, such as batteries, vehicles, and electronics.

There are fewer examples of CE on the national level in less wealthy countries, despite this the CE movement is gaining momentum across all regions. In February 2021, the UN launched a Coalition on Circular Economy for Latin America and the Caribbean to provide funding for CE projects. Although countries in this region produce less waste on average than their wealthier counterparts, the waste management is less efficient which leads to more plastic pollution contaminating the region's soil and ocean.

For example, Brazil only recycles about 1.2% of collected plastic waste, and waste management varies widely across the country with poorer areas seeing fewer selective collection programs than wealthier areas. Complementing this issue is the fact that waste pickers in countries such as Brazil are considered informal workers who are not highly regarded or adequately compensated for their work. A program in Fortaleza, Brazil aimed to create a more efficient city waste management system and incorporate waste pickers, who would be responsible for collecting upwards of 90% of Brazil’s recycled materials. However, they were not included in the design of the program, and were offered a lower-than-market-rate for recyclables, effectively leaving this group behind as the city forged ahead with their plan.

Although this case provides us with harder lessons, examples of success in Brazil should also be celebrated. For instance, Sao Paulo has created a program that promotes local organic farms that utilize regenerative farming practices. Regenerative farming closes the loop on food production through the composting of food waste.

These cases remind us that CE does not explicitly outline justice as a core principle. This means that we must work to integrate social and cultural principles of sustainability into CE as we begin to implement it internationally. In order to accomplish this, Ísis Amorim de Oliveira suggests we use an environmental justice lens to bridge the gap and require all stakeholders be involved in the decision-making process, especially those who have been historically overlooked (i.e. waste pickers). CE does not fix inequalities on its own, so we must be thoughtful and ensure that the disparities that have arisen from the linear economy are not inherited under a circular economy.

This concludes our Circular Economy Blog Series, we hope you have enjoyed it!

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