By Ana Birliga Sutherland, Editor, Circle Economy, Laxmi Haigh, Lead of Editorial, Circle Economy, and Joel Marsden, Senior Researcher, Circle Economy

The SDGs were created as a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet – but policies for circular economy, especially in higher-income countries, may be forgetting about the people part. Shifting to a circular economy – a system where waste is eliminated, materials are reused at their highest value, and natural systems are regenerated – could support a range of SDGs, from Goal 1 (no poverty) and Goal 10 (reduced inequalities) to the more obvious Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production). But it won’t be socially just by default – we need to make it so. 

This is according to a recent paper launched by the impact organization Circle Economy titled, ‘Thinking Beyond Borders to Achieve Social Justice in a Global Circular Economy.’

Without action towards a sustainable, circular economy that puts people at its heart, we run the risk of deepening inequalities both within and between countries, in the same way our dominant linear economic system has done for centuries. But if implemented well – with social considerations front of mind – the shift to a global circular economy will serve the SDGs across the board.

Waste management relies on using other countries as dumping grounds

Under current systems, well-intentioned recycling targets are doing more harm than good: higher-income nations are producing more waste than they have the capacity to deal with, and the excess is shipped – often illegally – to lower-income countries around the globe, where it damages residents’ health, harms wildlife, and pollutes nature. These countries usually lack the infrastructure to process such massive quantities of waste. Indonesia, for example, burns plastic on a massive scale to ease pressures on overflowing landfills – and recently, researchers have discovered this practice’s tragic effect. Harmful chemicals contained in plastic have contaminated local food chains, exposing residents to toxins that have been linked to cancer, diabetes, and immune system damage. What’s more, imported waste is tightly linked to informal work, such as waste picking: an operation that exposes workers to dangerous conditions and health risks for very little pay.

What can we do? Higher-income countries can work to create more localized and closed-loop supply chains – encouraging responsible consumption and production (SDG 12) among local enterprises, while also improving working conditions in informal roles in waste-receiving countries (SDG 8), preventing further damage to health and well-being (SDG 3), and ensuring healthier life in water (SDG 14) and on land (SDG 15).

High-tech innovations aren’t one-size-fits-all

European governments are increasingly framing sustainability solutions around technologies that may improve efficiency but do little to challenge current modes of production and consumption. These solutions – from lab-grown meat to low-carbon jet fuel – are often complex and high-cost, making such approaches to sustainability inaccessible for both individuals in higher-income countries and lower-income countries on the whole. They also pose a number of risks. Certain technologies, such as 3D printing for textiles, may displace jobs, while scaling biofuel production as a fossil fuel alternative may serve to drive up food prices, degrade land, and put additional pressure on water resources.

Technologies should be used when they draw from practices that are compatible with local cultures and contexts and enable – rather than displace – decent jobs (SDG 8), or they run the risk of failure. In an effort to mitigate negative respiratory and environmental effects from cookstoves in rural India, for example, civil society organizations (CSOs) implemented new, more efficient models – but without considering the local context. Too small to fit large pieces of wood, users (mainly women) were faced with the additional task of splitting kindling prior to use – a challenge they didn’t have with traditional mud and brick stoves. But when technology considers community needs and is driven by collaboration rather than imposition, everyone can benefit. In this case, a new device, Mewar Angithi, was rolled out: costing less than one US dollar, it was able to cut smoke levels in traditional stoves to levels comparable to those achieved by more high-tech stoves, both improving health (SDG 3) and reducing climate-warming air pollutants (SDG 13).

Responsible trade practices can help limit overconsumption

Shipping waste abroad with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality or rolling out costly technologies are makeshift solutions that do not tackle the root of the problem – that we consume too much. But even policies that limit overconsumption could have an adverse effect on lower-income countries: cutting consumption is expected to impact the global trade of primary materials, hugely impacting workers relying on this trade.

We must not halt the trade of waste or second-hand goods in a way that will create income instability for workers. How? Countries need to take responsibility for their own waste (through Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, for example), avoid an abrupt halt on exports, and support decent work for informal workers abroad (SDG 8).

How can we proceed? Decision makers face a choice today

The circular economy is a holistic concept: its practices extend far beyond material use, and its impacts extend beyond the environment. If approached in an integrated manner, it can help shape a just and equitable world and drive the achievement of the SDGs – but we’re not heading in this direction yet.

Decision makers face a choice today: the way governments, employers, and workers jointly decide to implement circular strategies now will shape the futures of people in other countries as well as their own. It’s time to turn prevailing narratives on power, trade, and technology on their heads. Find Circle Economy at a World Circular Economy Forum side event in October, where the report’s authors will discuss the way forward to shape a new circular economy that puts social justice at its core.

Curious to learn more?

Read the full report, ‘Thinking Beyond Borders to Achieve Social Justice in a Global Circular Economy,’ and download a short policy brief here to learn more about what you can do as an official of a government or multilateral body. Circle Economy will also be participating in a World Circular Economy Forum side event, ‘Achieving Social Justice in a Global Circular Economy,’ on 27 October 2022. Learn more and register here.