Why the Terrorist Attacks in Paris May Signal the Importance of the Circular Economy

Why the Terrorist Attacks in Paris May Signal the Importance of the Circular Economy

On Nov. 13, callous brutality detonated an otherwise joyful evening for citizens and visitors to Paris. Whether dining at a restaurant, enjoying a concert or cheering on the national soccer team, no one attacked in Paris could have imagined atrocities occurring in their daily routines. Ironically, things we take for granted, accept as the norm and have failed to improve in our day-to-day lives may be at the root of recent world upheaval.

Dilemmas facing the recycling industry in the European Union (EU) and the United States manifest current economic conditions fueling the situation. The global market has long been driven by consumer demand for low prices, frequent product design changes and rapid and direct product distribution. We easily evolved into a throw-away economy.

Thus poor resource management, energy inefficiencies and disregard for the environment have prevailed throughout the developed and burgeoning industrialized worlds. New players, through artificial and arbitrary market manipulation, prompted rising volatility in commodity pricing. Therefore, the sustainability of the current cradle-to-grave product model is now subjected to doubt.

So What Does All of This Have to Do with Terrorism?

To offset these risks, companies instituted workforce reductions, shifting the loss further down the food chain where pockets are the shallowest and the likelihood of recovery is the least. Consequently, the same conditions known to destabilize governments–starvation, poverty, inhumane living conditions and social inequalities–have become a growing reality for populations in even the most developed nations. Put in the context of historic global conflicts, the pervasiveness of the situation and its influence on world affairs cannot be trivialized or overlooked.

Without a doubt, the most recent actions in the venues of Paris, and previously in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, were prompted and carried out by extremist groups. The operatives and actual perpetrators of these heinous acts are not an isolated and remote enemies. Rather, more frequently they are locals, somehow disenfranchised from their communities. The so-called sleeper cells, at a minimum, facilitate the opportunity for crimes to occur.

Perhaps an even more alarming trend is that impressionable young adults are being recruited not only to become local radicals, but to join the foreign ranks of groups like ISIS. A huge factor in the success of this enlistment campaign is the ability to propagandize to unimaginable numbers through the Internet. What makes these young adults from seemingly normal families abandon lifetimes of values for such vengeance and hatefulness? To comprehend this vulnerability to fanatical rhetoric, it is important to understand their circumstances.

The Effect of Downsizing

Unemployment rates are staggeringly high in the European Union, reportedly 40 percent for youth in some countries. About 4.6 million young adults remain out of work. Economic development in Western and Eastern Europe is stagnant, leaving the unemployed with no prospects. Including the working poor, an estimated 21 million young people are bordering at the poverty line. With the flood of refugees migrating to the West, there is no telling how those figures will grow.

Crossing over the poverty line is a stigma for youth who quickly become excluded from the normal social avenues where advancement is possible. Instead, they are idle, with a need for fulfillment, a sense of belonging and purpose. In other words, they are easy marks.

The Promise of the Circular Economy

In December, the European Commission is set to release recommendations for goals and policies for the European Union to attain by 2050. In general, the commission supports a concept that has been gaining traction in boardrooms, legislative offices and academia. Labeled the “circular economy,” it changes the way commodities are valued and utilized, and prioritizes the use of energy sources. The Circular Economy Package is developed under the Directorate-General for Environment, but for better or worse, it will have economic impact.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of a circular economy, here's a simplistic description. Our current system flows in a linear sequence. Materials are extracted and manufactured into products. Those products are purchased and then eventually disposed or processed to recover certain materials. In the circular economy, as the name implies, products and parts are designed with multiple reuses and refurbishments as goals. Greater emphasis is given to durability, interchangeability and longevity. The idea is to continually reintroduce and repurpose products with minimal upgrades to the original design or by adding compatible parts. That’s a big change from our current model of single-use products.

Several studies support the notion that the circular economy through reuse and refurbishment creates jobs. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Club of Rome all report similar conclusions. A transition to renewable energy also factors big in job growth, as does recycling. The estimated net result of all of the anticipated combined measures expected in the commission's package yields more than $2 trillion dollars in business and more than 800,000 thousand new jobs by 2030.

This is true in part because reuse and refurbishment is more labor intensive than recycling or mining raw materials. Consider the European Pact for Youth and the Commission’s Youth Employment Initiative and you can start to see a public/private framework intent on building new marketable skill sets. It smacks a little of New Deal politics, but with enduring results.

Push Back and Concern

Not everybody embraces  the circular economy. Although there is broad EU support for the Circular Economy Package, the waste and recycling industry, along with packaging and other trade organizations, are in strong opposition to many of the rumored measures. There is concern that diversion objectives, which include suggested recycling and extended producer responsibility measures, will be instituted in advance of the development of new market outlets. Here in the United States, we all clearly understand that effect.

Others fear the commission’s sudden leaning toward voluntary methods will be insufficient to support the long-term investments necessary to develop infrastructure with sufficient capacity. A call to institute tighter legislation and regulatory controls to force the market has been expressed. This view is often accompanied with support for the taxation of raw material extraction to skew the market toward recycled content products.

Regardless of the specifics, it is clear that the European Union is headed toward the circular economy. In terms of green building, energy recovery, food waste diversion and recycled content preferred purchasing there seems to be common ground, if not full agreement.

If it delivers the projected economic boost and brings gainful employment in the process, the circular economy could end up spilling beyond the EU’s borders. Well-dispersed prosperity could end up being the most effective tool in the war against terrorism.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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