The executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN) criticised proponents of the ‘circular economy’ for focusing on recycling and ignoring waste prevention.
Jim Puckett suggested an emphasis on recycling within the circular economy had led to the export of hazardous waste from plastics and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) to developing countries, a process he termed ‘externalisation’.
Mr Puckett was speaking at the E-Waste World Virtual Summit yesterday (November 18), which heard that a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Mr Puckett said: “If we really want a circular economy then we must insist that the circular economy prioritises ‘turning off the tap’ and prevents the production of toxic, short-lived and wasteful products.”
He added: “We must realise that externalisation of costs competes with and undermines a true circular economy. We must know that an uneven market playing field prevents a circular economy. We must be aware that global inequity is real and creates a powerful driver for exploitation via externalities.”
BAN is an American non-profit organisation aiming to prevent the export of hazardous waste from technology and other products from industrialised societies to developing countries.
Mr Puckett referred to the three principles of the circular economy as outlined by the Ellan MacArthur Foundation, which he described as “more than just recycling on steroids”.
The first of these principles, which he said “everyone seems to focus on right away”, is that resource yields should be optimised by circulating products, components and materials.
Mr Puckett said the other two principles were frequently neglected. The first of these principles is to preserve and enhance natural capital, while the other is to reveal and design out negative externalities.
Mr Puckett identified three problems preventing the successful implementation of a circular economy. He said the Basel Convention had cited the circular economy to “promote a loophole” that enabled exporters to claim any WEEE as repairable and therefore non-waste. “This is a very dangerous loophole being promoted by manufacturers today,” he said.
“We must realise that externalisation of costs competes with and undermines a true circular economy”
He also said that in the recast of the waste shipment regulations he had heard some stakeholders argue that the regulations were outdated. The stakeholders had said the regulations “should be in alignment with the circular economy by allowing more waste trade to developing countries”, he said.
And, Mr Puckett said that in the recent plastics listings adopted by the Basel Convention “the US, Brazil, Argentina and the plastics industry all argued that controlling dirty and mixed plastic trade was counter to a circular economy”.
Mr Puckett said there were three drivers that led to waste being exported to developing countries. The first of these he termed the ‘Global Commons Syndrome’, whereby “good” laws governing what happens to the atmosphere and oceans were not in place.
Secondly, Mr Puckett said there was a lack of democracy and empowerment allowing people to the right to “redress damage to them”. This damage includes toxic workplaces, labour abuse and environmental harm.
Mr Puckett said the final driver was global inequity. He said this ensured cheap labour with a lack of safety nets and protections in weaker economies. “We are playing on a global uneven playing field,” he said.