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Recapturing the Value of the World’s Trash

The accumulation of human-generated waste is causing negative health and environmental impacts around the globe. Many countries are realizing they must work together to reduce waste by recovering, reusing, and remaking things—and the inspiration and technology to create such a “circular economy” already exists.

Image of garbage covering a beach in Bali

By Henrique Pacini and Carrie Snyder 

The production of goods is typically a one-way street. At the heart of our global economic system is a linear model of resource extraction, transformation, consumption, and then the end of the line—disposal. Once stuff hits the waste bin, however, collective amnesia seems to set in among creators and consumers alike. The pristine materials that create, say, a mattress or a laser printer, rarely return to the production cycle, where they could be incorporated into other products. 

We have all heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” and can imagine the changes we could make to personal consumption. Scaling these principles to a global network of industries and governments in order to create a more “circular economy” is much more challenging; but it’s a model that many nations are now taking seriously.

What Is a Circular Economy?
 

A circular economy challenges the prevailing linear model of creation-disposal. In its essence, circularity implies resources are kept longer in the economy, by means of better product design, durability, reuse, and recycling. It not only shifts the economy’s spotlight to the value of the waste bin, but also calls for a systemic rethinking of all steps of the value chain to ensure resource recovery. In a simplified way, a circular economy mines our own waste instead of exploiting new resources from nature. 

In a circular economy, the definition of waste includes both a physical and a virtual dimension. Physical waste can be illustrated by an old computer, used textiles, or a half-eaten fruit. Virtual—or immaterial—waste is, for example, empty spaces, unused seats, or any kind of informational barriers which stimulate more consumption when there would be an alternative way to fulfill the same need. (Just imagine someone purchasing a new power drill when her neighbor has one he never uses, or a farmer purchasing expensive chemical fertilizer while the nearby farm has plenty of organic fertilizer to spare.) For simplification, we will focus on the physical waste, which is conceptually easier to grasp.... Read more about Recapturing the Value of the World’s Trash

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Epicenter is an online publication that provides commentary and analysis on issues that transcend borders. Our team of writers and editors works with academic specialists to help bring clarity to complex global issues. The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs is committed to Harvard's tradition of fostering innovative, timely, policy-relevant scholarly activities that help us all make sense of the world.