By Joan Martínez Alier *
A political slogan heard in China and also in the European Union is that the economy should be circular. Activists fighting the avalanche and waste of household garbage sometimes use the slogan zero waste, zero waste, which looks a bit like that official slogan. In other words, waste must be reduced and those that are produced must be recycled. Who could be against it?
How would a circular economy work? For example, aluminum enters the economy from bauxite mining, the process consumes a lot of electricity and leaves a toxic red sludge. No more: we are going to recycle all the aluminum that we produce and use, we are going to recycle all the cans and all the window frames, plus we are going to make them finer and just as resistant. Bauxite mining is over. Furthermore, we suppose, less energy is used to recycle than to produce aluminum. How good!
As Jesús Ramos Martín has written, under the illusion of the circular economy, it would seem that growth can continue in an unlimited way, as we will recycle waste and convert it into new resources. But there a paradox arises (the Jevons Paradox): higher efficiency lowers cost, and therefore can lead to greater use.
Also, let's look at some figures on the global use of materials and the false illusion of a circular economy. How does the world economy really work? A recent article by Willi Haas and his Viennese colleagues in the Journal of Industrial Ecology gives some figures. Remember that the world population is just over 7 billion. All the figures that follow are also in billions of tons (or what is the same, gigatons, GT), so we see that the use of materials per person per year is around eight tons on average - but in India is only four, and in the United States more than 20. This use of materials per year is divided into the following categories:
Twelve GT of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) that almost all of them go to be burned in the production of electricity or domestic consumption, or in transportation, that is, they are used as energy sources. They are like photosynthesis bottled millions of years ago, we uncork it and there it goes. It cannot be burned twice. The heat is dissipated, by the second law of thermodynamics or law of entropy.
Nineteen GT of biomass, for many different uses, livestock feed or human food directly (one kilogram a day, more or less), the production of paper pulp (eventually, a part of the paper is recycled), the production of wood for construction, and most wood for burning. Thanks to photosynthesis, this biomass is produced again every year, thanks to solar energy and water, but it is only recycled in a small part. Also, the nutrients (phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen) do not return to the fields, in general. While in some places they are lacking, in others they are produced in excess, lead to eutrophication of water courses due to excess nutrients, or pollute the water table with nitrites.
Twenty-two GT of construction materials, sand and gravel for cements. This extraction tends to damage the environment, but in addition these materials are hardly recycled. Increase the accumulated stock in buildings, highways. It can be argued whether it could be recycled for the most part, and perhaps a non-growing economy could only use old recycled building materials to replace infrastructure and rehabilitate homes. We are very far from this situation, not only because the world economy is still growing but because recycling is surely more expensive than new extraction.
Finally, the fourth adding, worldwide, is 4.5 GT of metalliferous materials (of which the majority is converted into slags and tailings), with less than one GT of metals already concentrated and refined entering the economy on average. Some are easier to recycle than others.
Altogether, what is currently recycled in the world is no more than 6 percent of the materials extracted. We are very far from a circular economy. An economy that ran exclusively on renewable energy would also be entropic, to be sure, but it would depend on the continuous flow of solar energy. Maybe it could recycle all the materials, zeroing out the new extraction. We are very far from this situation.
* Joan Martínez Alier, ICTA-Autonomous University of Barcelona