The French engineer François Grosse, currently the CEO of the urbanism consultancy ForCity, whose quantitative analysis of recycling underlies the contents of my most visited and quoted post up to now, is doing me the honor and the pleasure of contributing this blog’s first guest post. He delineates the rationale for what he calls “quasi-circular growth,” based on his understanding of why (a) recycling might well be useless in the long run in a growing economy but why (b) a de-growth — or negative growth — economy isn’t the answer. Ultimately, he calls for a deeper cultural overhaul of our entrenched habits if we are going to usher in a perma-circular society.
Why Do We Recycle? was the somewhat provocative title of a book published in 1997 in the United States by Frank Ackerman. Good question indeed, since the huge effort towards recycling made in the US during the decade of the 80s had been motivated mostly by a widespread belief that a “landfill crisis” was imminent. When it became clear that nothing of the sort was about to happen after all, the national passion for recycling receded and what remained was that innocent but deep question.
So why, in fact, do we recycle? To stop building that disgusting and poisonous plastic island in the middle of the ocean? No. Of course not. This plastic waste doesn’t suffer from not being recycled, but from not having been collected in the first place and then treated properly — in whatever way, including landfills. So do we do it in order, precisely, to avoid being invaded by landfills? No. In France, the additional space occupied every year by landfill expansion represents only 1% of the newly artificialized land; so 99% of the problem of artificialization lies in the materials we use, not in the ones we dispose of. Do we recycle so as to reduce the depletion of raw material resources? Yes. That’s it. In the long run, the core purpose of recycling is to avoid extracting additional primary raw materials — in order, first, to prolong the lifetime of known resources and, second, to avoid the environmental impacts of extraction and mitigate those of raw-material manufacturing. In the end, both reasons point to our need to avoid the extraction of primary resources. Once you think about it, this is all very obvious.
But it’s not enough to just recycle waste. Consider the rampant artificialization of the soil. Most of the raw materials we use to build the additional homes, schools, plants, and shopping malls that now occupy previously undeveloped land have not been taken from recycled waste, since they’re generating development on additional land. The global volume of materials being currently used by mankind is a stock, and any new materials added to that stock necessarily had to be taken from the Earth’s crust. (I’m aware that I’m understating the potential offered by renewable materials, such as wood. But let’s get real here and recognize that the volumes of major metals and minerals we’re extracting are gigantic in comparison to the current wood industry, and that one-to-one substitution isn’t a feasible option at all.) So if in the future we still add massively every year to the stock of materials being used by mankind, even a tremendous and successful effort in recycling our waste will not prevent resource depletion. Actually, recycling will barely be of any use at all if the proportion of raw-material production — from both extraction and recycling — that ends up in new stocks is above 20%. This is equivalent to saying that, every year, the volume of any raw material both extracted and recycled by mankind shouldn’t exceed by more than 20% the amount of the same raw material that has been discarded as waste. If we fail to keep to this equation, recycling is simply useless in the long run.
But we’re not done yet. If every year the demand for any raw material grows by even a couple of percent, then there is no way the amount of material needed to meet the demand can be produced only by recycling. Recycling deals with the artifacts we all — including companies — throw away at the end of their product life, some of them after several lives as in the case of cars. The average “residence time” of these artifacts in the economy depends on each raw material, going from a couple of years to a couple of decades, but it’s easy to see that for each material the volumes of waste being generated today are a reflection of the volumes of material that were produced several years ago. If today, because of demand and production growth, we need 50% more materials than when the materials currently becoming waste were produced, then there is no chance that recycling will ever be sufficient to match our current needs. Not by a long shot.
Let’s rejoice: it’s not so often that economics is this hard a science. But actually, what we’re dealing with here is pretty much physics – the mechanics of a bathtub that’s being filled and emptied at the same time. So there’s no room for doubt and no possible escape: If the consumption of raw materials grows above 1% per year, or if the global addition to stocks lies above 20% of global consumption of any material, then there is no sense in recycling. And if we don’t soon become technically capable of recycling at least 60% to 80% of all the raw materials we’re using, then let’s not get all excited about changing this industrial world of ours into a sober one: our recycling efforts won’t have much impact on the future. The only way to have an impact is to do three things at the same time: slow growth, light accumulation, and high recycling. This is what I call “Quasi-Circular Growth.”
Here I can just hear the exasperated true believers: “Bullshit! (Some will be more polished and exclaim, “Traitor!”) Why don’t you just spell out the obvious agenda underneath all of this? Why don’t you just admit that your only apparent solution is sheer de-growth?” How I envy these simple, black-or-white minds. They’re on to something, of course, but it’s as absurd as their blind faith in recycling. It’s unquestionably true that if the human economy were to de-grow by 3.5% per year over the next hundred years (and 3.5% was roughly the annual growth rate of steel production over the course of 20th century), we could divide consumption by 31 by 2116. And if we could stand it for two centuries in a row, we could divide consumption by 1,000 by 2216. At minus 1% per year, the descent would be less impressive but it would still work quite well, thank you. We wouldn’t even need to recycle or to improve the efficiency of industrial processes. Just de-grow, and there will be more than enough of every resource for everybody. Think of it: Dividing the global production of everything by 1,000 in two centuries. It’s a panacea! It solves everything! The promoters of de-growth can just scoff at the reformists, can’t they?
There’s a problem, however. De-growth solves the sustainability challenge by shifting the burden onto a much more challenging issue, which is to design and implement a de-growth economy. Nobody has the slightest hint as to how to render viable a world economy that would be structurally de-growing while ensuring social balance, individual and collective satisfaction, and peace between the large states. Even the slow-growing economy (at a less-than-1% growth rate) that results from my earlier demonstration remains an unsolved challenge, since we still don’t know how to ensure employment, innovation, useful investments, and even democracy at such a low pace of economic growth. Just think back to the social structures and the kinds of international relations that prevailed across the world before industrialization. Even recommending that we create a perfectly clean and quasi-infinite energy source – so that we could gradually replace every negative externality with energy solutions that are neutral for the biosphere – would be less irresponsible than promoting de-growth. I don’t think it’s at all realistic to bet on this, but I suggest that the science we have now is much closer even to designing such an energy source than to inventing a stable de-growth economy. We can’t live with negative growth for any length of time. De-growth as a solution is a fraud; let’s drop it.
So let’s go back to my earlier slow-growing economy. How do we satisfy the three conditions of Quasi-Circular Growth – slow growth, light accumulation, and high recycling? We still have no clue about this. Actually, the issue isn’t just raw-material production and recycling; it’s not just about how to engineer one global closed loop for each raw material. Earlier, I only discussed the global flows of non-renewable raw materials, but a circular economy needs to purposefully minimize retrieval and irreversible impacts for every material and biological resource locally, globally, and sustainably, while maximizing the benefits to mankind under that constraint. It’s a systemic challenge, including loops at every scale – like in a fractal system. When looking for solutions, it’s appealing to single out individual responsibilities within the system: managers seeking profits, engineers planning obsolescence, marketeers stimulating consumers’ greed, etc. All of this is, or may be, true. But merely pointing it out won’t help.
In the end, our individual experience – at least for most of us – is that today we usually still enjoy better health technologies, larger schools for our kids, a larger house, a more powerful mobile phone, etc. As the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in his 1970 book La société de consommation, “there is no limit to the ‘needs’ of man as a social being.” Making our society sustainable begins with imagining and reflecting on how our socially constructed needs could gradually be made to fit into the biosphere; and that’s only the beginning, not the point of arrival. Let me suggest a very first step, though: What if we began by regulating the minimum amount of recycled materials inside every new product?
October 17, 2016
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