Part 1: Circular economy, sustainability and the maker movement in Malaysia

A reflection on the circular economy, sustainability and the maker movement, with reference to the Malaysian context. Sources and related articles are linked.

Circular economy: just another eco-buzzword?

Over the last few years, I encountered the term “circular economy” several times in passing, but paid very little attention. While I vaguely knew it had something to do with recycling, perhaps it was its buzzword-esque ring that turned me off from ever looking it up properly.

This changed when I chanced upon promotion for a weekend event called the Open Source Circular Economy (OSCE) Mini Festival 2019, hosted by Me.reka Makerspace, KL. A whole event dedicated to it? Alright then, what was the fuss?

Perusing their schedule, the interest grew. Offerings included panel discussions with experts of varied environmental-y things – re/upcycling, waste management, environmental protection, biodegradable materials, composting etc. Sounds like my kind of thing, cool. 👍

Yet, I still wasn’t sure how the festival was going to be any different from other sustainability/eco/tree-hugging-hippie events (and I have been to quite a few). I mean, there was even going to be kombucha. Who decided to replace “sustainability” with “circular economy” as the eco-buzzword du jour?

I wouldn’t be the only one to think that the circular economy has come out of nowhere. A quick check on Google Trends confirms that sustainability is still, by far, the more well-known concept in Malaysia (and worldwide).

Since everybody knows what sustainability is… what ideas does the circular economy have to offer that sustainability doesn’t? If they are the same thing, why the need to call sustainability any differently? Why are those from the maker movement involved?

And so I descended into a wormhole. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

The academic perspective

Even in academia, “sustainability” and “circular economy” have often been used interchangeably for decades, leading into inconsistency of meaning and confusion – until some pretty fastidious researchers at the University of Cambridge decided to reign in the chaos and to settle it once and for all. Thanks, guys.

They did so by doing One Big-Ass Review of about 60,000 journal articles and reviews that contained either or both “sustainability” and “circular economy” keywords, to see how the concepts are framed. Based on their findings, they came up with these representative definitions to rule all other definitions:

Sustainability:
…the balanced integration of economic performance, social inclusiveness, and environmental resilience, to the benefit of current and future generations.”

Both quotes from The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm? by Martin et al. (2017)

Circular Economy:
… a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.

[We better hold on to these definitions for a bit – the last I checked, this paper has been cited 699 times since it was published in 2017.]

As it turns out, the assessment showed some pretty fundamental differences between how the two terms are perceived to mean and are applied.

In its early days, sustainability was predominantly an environmental idea. It was generally the good ol’ ethos of “we should only harvest from the environment at a rate that would still allow the environment to regenerate ✌️☮️”. Sustainability was an attractive vision as global-scale environmental issues such as ozone depletion, climate change and biodiversity loss became apparent. But of course, these issues were more than just environmental. Economical and societal issues were interweaved. As a result, the definition of sustainability expanded to accommodate multiple of expectations.

In short, sustainability tries to do it all, aiming to holistically benefit the environment, the economy and society all at the same time (i.e. the three pillars of sustainability, or the triple bottom line).

The three pillars of sustainability. Image source.

The circular economy was conceptualised when people realised that the economy was inherently dependent on the availability and health of natural resources – as inputs for production and consumption, and as as a sink for outputs such as waste. Therefore, it was in their economic best interest to adopt better use of resources, and to reduce/eliminate waste and leakage (in contrast to a linear economy).

In brief, the circular economy tends to prioritise economic gains, with primary benefits for the environment. Typically, any resulting benefit to society is an after-thought bonus.

Linear vs circular economy. Image source.

So how does sustainability and the circular economy fit together? As the researchers found, some argue that the circular economy is a necessary condition for a sustainable system. Others argue that they are complementary strategies. Other others may argue that the circular economy contradict elements of sustainability.

In the end, the researchers figured this to be the best way to look at it: a circular economy is a subset solution, one among several ways, to foster a sustainable system. The advantage of this interpretation is that it is flexible enough for multiple complementary concepts to be combined for a holistic sustainable outcome – one that the circular economy alone doesn’t fundamentally strive for.

The narrative on circular economy in Malaysia

But all of that still doesn’t truly explain the version of the circular economy that is present in Malaysia. When people mention “circular economy” here, what are they talking about?

In the last few years, mentions of “circular economy” have begun popping up from the government, academia, industry and the public (spoiler alert: I did end up going to the OSCE Mini Festival, as well as other environmental events around the city). At this point, it would be unlikely if anything remotely environmentally-themed event would go on without mention of the Big C. E.

So yeah, people are getting interested, and there are a few likely reasons. One is an obvious – sustainability as an idea is too vague, whereas the goals of the circular economy are more actionable and provides a solution framework for one of Malaysia’s trending environmental issues i.e. waste and plastic management.

For example, take Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030 from the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC). As part of these efforts to reduce plastic pollution, a “Circular Economy Roadmap (CER) for plastics including bottles” (as quoted from the brief) will also be launched by 2020.

Academic researchers are also being encouraged to figure out how to use waste as a resource. This is exemplified by another event I attended, Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) panel discussion themed “Waste to Wealth: Exploring New Horizons”, which aimed to inspire alternatives “to divert waste from landfill into electricity, energy or money-making products which are environmentally and economically sustainable.” The panel included the Minister of MESTECC Yeo Bee Hin herself. Interestingly, my general impression was that the ASM crowd was more concerned with waste reduction and management, rather than thinking up ways on how to profit from and make the best of our ever-piling heap of rubbish.

The panelists for the Akademi Sains Malaysia panel discussion themed “Waste to Wealth: Exploring New Horizons”. Personal photo.

Industry too is being encouraged to get on board. In the Circular Economy Conference and Mission held in July, 30 EU Circular Economy business leaders were present to share ideas and experiences to promote CE business models in EU and Malaysia. Its event introduction says, “The linear model of economic development based on the limitless exploitation of virgin raw materials and energy has reached its physical limit and it is threatening the stability of economies and ultimately human survival. In a Circular Economy (CE), the value of products, materials and resources are retained in the economy for as long as possible, and waste generation is minimized.” Earlier this year, a Kuala Lumpur chapter of the Circular Economy Club established. So, I guess we still have to wait and see if it really takes off. Hey, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah thinks it could (Sunway Group founder and chairman).

All of this speaks to another reason why the circular economy concept is attractive: money talks. Time and time again, people lament that Malaysians just don’t give a damn about the environment/recycling. There needs to be a “mindset change” and a “cultural shift”. We need to “make the issue relatable” through “education” and “communication” in order to get Malaysians off their apathetic butts. You know how the song goes, sing it with me!

Emphasising the economic value of sustainability thus plays an important role in all of this. Why should businesses care about the environment? Because you’ll save money! And so the circular economy is an attractive idea because it inherently speaks of environmental issues in the language of ca$h, which is also the language of industry players and policymakers.

While the circular economy concept is indeed attractive, there needs to be a better appreciation for the fact that a circular economy alone does not necessarily equate to a sustainable future. Emphasising the economic value too much may in fact be a disservice to the overall sustainable future goal (e.g. focusing on money also tends to exclude large parts of the social dimension and simplify the environmental perspective). As discussed in the ASM panel discussion, the existing recycling industry in Malaysia is also imperfect, being a polluting industry itself due to too much emphasis on profit (which breeds less-than-satisfactory industrial standards). Moreover, not all waste can also be converted into wealth – what about food waste? Non-recyclables? Materials that Malaysia just doesn’t have the facilities yet to recycle and manage? Unfortunately, the circular economy’s attractiveness may divert attention and resources from more comprehensive and holistic approaches.

Within all of this discussion of adopting the circular economy in Malaysia, there is one major point that people keep coming back to – the public’s apathy towards recycling (and the environment in general). From what I have heard and read, the overall sentiment appears to be this: the biggest hurdle towards a circular economy is to get Malaysians is to recycle in the first place. Because how else would industry gain access to the waste to reintroduce back into their production line/circle? [This was also said by a representative of the Malaysia Plastic Manufacturers Association during the OSCE Mini Festival] Apparently, for industry to even start to make any changes, the general public must be educated to want change in the first place.

Some may argue that the decision for systematic economic change ultimately rests upon the shoulders of the public. While there is more to the circular economy and sustainability than just getting people to reduce, reuse and recycle, I think that progress towards change is made difficult by this argument if we keep going around in circles about it.

It’s always good to end on a good pun so stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk more about the role of the maker movement.