Jan 28 2021

Transitioning To A Circular Production Economy

A recent study looks at the use of food waste to produce beneficial bacteria and nutrients for agriculture. Specifically they take beer mash and mixed produce discarded from a grocery store. They ferment it, and then add the result to the closed watering system of a greenhouse. The results are very encouraging – a significant increase in beneficial bacteria and carbon without any increase in pathogenic bacteria. In the US we waste about 50% of the food we grow and recycle only about 20% of it, so there is a huge untapped potential to return that food waste to the food-production stream. This system, if it works out, might add one method for doing so.

Such systems are an example of a circular production economy, rather than a linear system that begins with a natural resource and ends in a landfill. Linear systems are not indefinitely sustainable, as is becoming increasingly apparent as we approach 8 billion people on this planet. Anything we do on a global scale, like growing food, is going to be a stress on natural resources, including the availability of land.

Some argue, cruelly, in my opinion, that the best solution is to reduce the human population. I do think we need to ultimately get to a stable population, and the evidence shows an effective way to do this is to both combat poverty and promote women’s rights. This is then a win-win all around. We don’t have to starve people to death (people who propose this are never the ones who would starve), nor do we have to ban reproductive rights.

Eventually getting to a stable population in the billions, while a good thing, is not going to solve by itself the many issues of sustainability. Further, even if linear production from resource to landfill does not exhaust a specific resource it is still inefficient. So you don’t have to believe that we have or will reach “peak” whatever in order to see the advantages of designing a circular production economy.

Circular production does happen on its own, because industry does not like waste either. Waste and inefficiency represents lost profit, so there is already a built-in motivation for sustainability. But this has proven to be insufficient to optimize efficiency across every industry, for at least a couple of reasons.

One reason is that we allow certain industries to externalize some of their costs. If we allow, for example, an industry to cheaply dump their waste into the environment without paying any of the resulting cost, we incentivize them to waste. If we do not allow externalization of cost, then they will have an increased motive to find something useful to do with that waste. An important example of this is carbon – industries that dump carbon into the atmosphere are externalizing a significant cost onto the public. If we simply don’t allow them to externalize this cost, by charging them for dumping carbon, for example, then technologies that reduce carbon release or recapture carbon become cost-effective.

Another factor that limits the circular economy is technology. If a waste stream has a value, because there is the technology to do something with it, then a circular stream develops naturally. If not, then the industry will try to find a way to dispose of it as cheaply as possible. Sometimes the technology exists, but it is not cost effective. The solution here is to invest in research that will find cost-effective ways of bending the waste stream back into some production stream – like using beer mash to fertilize crops.

Therefore, one of the two main methods of promoting a sustainable circular model of production is prioritizing research that makes recyling, upcylcing, and circular production scalable and cost-effective. The second is to optimize regulation so that industry has an incentive to be sustainable, because we don’t allow them to unfairly and wastefully externalize the costs of their waste stream.

The role of individuals is, in my opinion, less clear. Industry likes to frame issues of the environment and sustainability as a problem of individual behavior, but this is mostly a deliberate distraction to absolve themselves of responsibility. Individuals should be reasonably sustainable and efficient in their behavior – there is cost-savings to efficiency for individuals also. Citizens can also put pressure on corporations to be sustainable, and we do see many corporations at least touting as a virtue. We can also hold them accountable through the politicians we elect.

In many ways, we get the world we deserve. The world isn’t just the way it is – we make it the way it is through our collective decision-making and behavior. But there are many barriers to effective collective action, one being uncertainty. Psychologists have identified uncertainty as a primary barrier to behavior, and so it is very effective to engage in a campaign of fear, doubt, and denial. Just a bit confusion surrounding an issue can freeze effective action.

Industry and politicians have also discovered that you can easily create paralysis by engaging tribalism. Make an issue part of the culture war, and denial of the science as a political badge of your tribe, and the evidence no longer matters. We see this phenomenon across the political spectrum, although not symmetrically.

When it comes to issues of efficiency and sustainability, therefore, perhaps the most important measure is to frame them as issues of science and humanity, not politics and ideology. This requires stepping back from the issue and looking at it through the prism of science and logic. When you do, it seems very obvious that efficiency and sustainability are objectively good things. Who doesn’t want a cleaner environment, sustainable progress, and lower costs? We can debate the optimal methods of achieving these ends – that is where the real debate should always focus – but we tend to get stuck debating distractions.

So the most important thing we can do is not only to lower the political temperature overall, but to make sure we frame scientific issue as matters of science, and not ideology. Then we can focus on optimizing things like efficiency and reducing waste, which should not be controversial.

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