Reshaping global policies for the circular economy

Newswise — The circular economy is not always effective or even desirable due to the spatio-temporal dimensions of environmental risk from materials and the variability of global policies. Circular flows involving toxic materials can impose a high risk to the environment and public health, so overemphasis on anthropogenic circularity is undesirable. Additionally, global waste streams could lead to an unequal distribution of the risks and costs associated with a circular economy. Challenges remain in the implementation and application of international policies beyond national borders. The United Nations Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is used here as an example to illustrate the challenges and propose a way forward for anthropogenic circularity.

An article describing the results appeared in the journal Circular economy May 19, 2022. (DOI 10.1016/j.cec.2022.100003)

The circular economy remains the following challenges and opportunities in the implementation and application of international policies beyond national borders.

Control toxic releases throughout the life cycle of materials. Despite attempts to use policies and economic incentives to avoid toxic releases and exposures during the life cycle of these products, fugitive emissions do occur and vulnerable people and the environment are adversely affected. Insufficient investment in environmental protection in low- and middle-income countries has resulted in a high burden of toxic pollution-related death rates. Therefore, it may be more desirable to remove certain toxic materials from the circular economy of products to avoid the deterrent of diminishing returns on investment in collection and recycling. Another vital aspect of the circular economy is the issue of mixing materials in recycling which can compromise product quality.

International flow of materials and some products. The illegal cross-border flow of e-waste occurred frequently in the 2000s from wealthy industrialized countries to poorer countries. Inappropriate recycling in poor regions has had disastrous consequences on environmental quality and public health. The sustainability of long-distance transportation of materials and waste depends on fluctuations in transportation costs, leakage potential, energy expenditure, carbon footprint, and supply chain logistics. Thus, life cycle thinking includes the recognition of trade-offs subject to the subjective values ​​of stakeholders within the circular economy.

Harmonization of international policies and regulations. Globally, the Basel Convention focuses on protecting human health and the environment from the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, which were notoriously and unfairly traded across national borders due to the imbalance and diversity of policies. The EU, Japan and China are leading in e-waste regulation and policy, but most countries with economies in transition are still in the early stages. In individual countries such as China, regulation and policy have stipulated the rigorous governance of products and components. Two major gaps exist in the existing regulations: the lack of adequate attention to recovered materials and substances and the lack of substance controls to avoid toxic metals being manufactured into new products.

Classification of human resources. Secondary raw materials from anthropogenic resources are receiving increasing attention in the context of climate protection and the circular economy. Anthropogenic resource classification initiatives facilitate the development of recovery projects but are challenged by key differences between natural and anthropogenic resources. By analogy with geogenic resources, the classification of anthropogenic resources allows comparable estimates of the availability of anthropogenic and geogenic resources. It facilitates the development of sustainable recovery projects and the management of national resources if environmental, social and governance criteria are taken into account. These factors can be incorporated into the United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) to communicate the viability of recovery projects to governments, investors, industry and the public.

Although the spatio-temporal, geographic and international dimensions pose major challenges to the effectiveness of the circular economy, there are opportunities to transition from a linear model of material and energy flows, including technological innovations and political capabilities. Despite many economic, environmental and social challenges, the harmonization and compatibility of regulations and policies between countries, regions and even provinces is necessary in the framework of supporting circular economy policies so that the update and the review of circular economy implementation in the US, EU, Japan and China can be achieved without delay.


About Circular economy

Circular economy is an international journal serving as a sharing and communication platform for new contributions and findings on innovative techniques, systematic analysis and policy tools of global, regional, national, local and industrial park waste management system to improve the reduction, reuse, recycling, and disposal of waste in a sustainable manner.

Circular economy is an open access journal. It is co-published by Tsinghua University Press and Elsevier, and academically supported by the School of Environment, Tsinghua University, and the Circular Economy Branch, Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences. At its discretion, Tsinghua University Press will pay open access fees for all articles published from 2022 to 2024.

About Tsinghua University Press

Founded in 1980, owned by Tsinghua University, Tsinghua University Press (TUP) is one of China’s leading comprehensive professional and higher education publishers. Committed to building a high-level global cultural brand, after 41 years of development, TUP has established an outstanding management system and corporate structure, and delivered multi-media and multi-dimensional publications covering books, audio, video, electronic products, magazines and digital publications. . Additionally, TUP is actively leading its strategic transformation from educational publishing to content development and service for teaching and learning and was named a National First Class Publisher for achieving outstanding results.

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