From the Ministry of Environment, Waters and Forests (Romania), which are the pitfalls of sustainability routines in Romania?
From large to small, it's time we all took responsibility for the planet
In order to understand why it is important to move from linear to circular economies, it is first important to understand what the circular economy is - and extract from our discussion with Raul Pop, secretary of state, Ministry of the Environment, Waters and Forests, Romania
By circular economy, Raul tells us, we are trying to mimic a natural cycle, where you produce no waste. Everything that is no longer useful falls to the ground and from there is transformed into something else that is useful to nature. And this cycle can repeat itself over and over again and at the end of it all there is an ideal lack of waste.
This is what the circular economy is trying to do, in the most amped-up way possible: to keep a resource in use for as long as possible, so that it generates added value for as much as possible.
But our traditional economic model is different: the linear model, where we have a resource, make a product from it, use it and then throw it away. And then we look for another resource to exploit for another product and so on. This model has brought us to this point where we are basically consuming from reserves because our annual consumption is much greater than the active resources we can generate for exploitation.
We need to take a closer look at what we're doing, to try to get back to where we can change that - to consume relative to what we can actually produce, without going into reserves, without consuming on debt.
In the linear economy, the classical economy, what goes in comes out at the end. Circulation is relatively small, which means that at one end of it we will have a growing mountain of waste that we then have to do something with. Until the large-scale emergence of plastic, waste was limited and it was re-incorporated into the reality of life locally. Many things were reused, changing their purpose or final destination. But the industrial revolution and the widespread use of plastics changed the rules of the game.
Circular economy means eliminating waste. I have a resource that I use as much as I can and this must be the credo that drives us forward from now on: awareness of the need to eliminate waste.
And yet, while in theory the circular model is understood and accepted, in practice things get complicated. Often, this process is one of self-sabotage. We humans find ourselves stuck in the process of adopting circularity. But why?
Alec tells us that the answer is very simple. We humans, although we are excellent inventors and innovators, can only do this when we are forced by circumstances, when there is no turning back. Otherwise, we indulge in comfort. As long as our comfortable consumption of resources doesn't force us to make a sudden change that could save our lives, then we prefer to stay in our comfort zone. Why change something if it doesn't threaten me in any way?
Then there is another very logical cause: our society's stuck in the inertia of the economic paradigm that runs on profit and growth. In this paradigm it is very hard to introduce the idea of circularity because it puts profit in question. Where do I make my profit? And we tend to associate excessive consumption and waste with growth and profit.
Growth must be organic, not sudden, and we must introduce the concepts of decoupling and creative destruction into the idea of growth. You cannot grow infinitely. You have to accept that destruction and death are part of the growth cycle. Must be accepted as part of the game.
Another problem facing the circular economy, Raul tells us, is the lack of measurement tools and theory of measurement. The linear economy has a very good measurement tool and it is an accounting tool that works with profit reports, percentages and very clear figures. For the circular economy, however, things are not so simple. Caught up in this obsession of profit measurement, we become unable to understand the usefulness of another model that excludes this hard calculation. We need to learn to calculate not only profitability but also the impact it has on society, the environment and even our own lives. Who has to take on the change of this model and it cannot come from only one direction. There has to be an area of interference from the political, social and economic spheres.
At the intersection of these three areas of influence, a response might coagulate. Individually, fragmented and fractured, there is no answer that offers the idea either sustainability or a future.
In Romania, specifically, the discussion about the circular economy starts badly from a certain point of view: we begin with the exception of the circular economy, namely waste. Circular economies do not generate waste and yet we in Romania must first of all solve this problem.
The barriers are multiple. The lack of a legislative framework, the lack of awareness of the importance of waste management or the lack of a social demand to which the authorities respond. We also have some very old legacies from the forced industrial past of the country, when we were obliged to put some finished products on the market very quickly, including worldwide, and the environmental implications and impact were completely neglected or even denied. So today we have a lot of waste dumps and contaminated sites. And now we have to find a way to see how exactly we can clean up these areas and make them "walkable" again.
As for the present, however, things are speeding up. Our transition periods are about to expire. We can no longer ask for exceptions but must move quickly and efficiently.
On the municipal waste side, some more or less firm efforts have been made by local authorities. First of all, the waste bills should be different depending on how much each pollutes or recycles. Depending on how they collect waste, separately or not. Then the municipalities should have the answers to all the citizens' questions about the different types of waste: what do they do with it? With an old piece of furniture, with a damaged fridge, with a bunch of expired medicines! At the moment, many municipalities do not have these answers. And here comes the next moral problem: citizens often don't ask these questions, so on the list of municipalities, these are not necessarily points of interest.
In Romania, the town halls do not answer to anyone but the citizens. The interests of the citizens are the interests of the mayors. It is a vicious circle that is kept alive by a very toxic ferment: lack of trust.
Alec tells us that there is mistrust because people in Romania are bombarded with the need to recycle but on the other hand it is very hard to find recycling points and centers. This schizophrenia of these elements generates a great wave of distrust and confusion. Then, another source of disbelief is clearly building around us: no matter what we do, climate change cannot be stopped or reversed. So, people don't see how their actions can have an effect or how that effect can be measured. Philosophically, we are stuck in a Sisyphean approach where nothing makes sense. Can we still find meaning where so many people tell us there is none?
Empowering the citizen is actually a mistake because more work should be done on empowering the corporations that always pass on the costs of recycling to the end consumer, concludes Alec.
Lack of trust is due to lack of visibility. What happens to the waste after it reaches the processor. And we can combat this with more reporting and more measurability of actions on the part of waste processors. They need to give access to information so that both accountability and the lost meaning of actions can be revealed. Dismantling the Sisyphus, moving it from the suspended level of meaninglessness to the applied level of attitudes and moves that can change reality.
What can we do? We can do many things, Raul tells us, but the most important are the small things that gain strength through the scaling up of billions of people. Small things, like the cardboard box of toothpaste or the reused bag from the grocery store when we go shopping, can save our planet from an almost immeasurable amount of waste. It's easier and smarter to prevent rather than salvage and change.
There are many examples of initiatives that have become reality in the absence of a legal framework, in the absence of a cohesive attitude of private economic, political or central administrative actors. It can be done. The answer to all the questions lies in the desire and awareness of the importance of change. People can be helped by making the effects of their actions visible. They could make them continue, have more energy, be more motivated. Authorities can only be motivated to move more effectively in relation to people's need to see results. Until then, however, in the absence of brighter horizons, all we can do is generate a reserved optimism that will enable us to continue the fight.