Opinion: Local and Green – Amherst And The Circular Ecnonomy (#30) 


Circular economy butterfly diagram. Photo: Ellen MacArthur Foundation - based on a drawing by Braungart and McDonough. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy-diagram

Editor’s note:  This column also appeared in the Amherst Bulletin.  For more information on circular economy in this issue of the Indy, look here.

Darcy Dumont

The concept of the circular economy was new to me until recently, when I started working on zero waste efforts in town. It is a strategy well positioned to correct seemingly intractable problems across the spectrum.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. The Foundation writes, “In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste — the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place … It is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials.”

Since 2014, several European countries have taken the lead on developing circular economy roadmaps, including Finland, France, Slovenia and Italy.

When it comes to climate change, the circular economy is based on three principles, each of which, if followed, reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

■Eliminating waste and pollution (reducing emissions from the production of materials).

■Circulating products and materials, at their highest value (retaining the embodied energy in those products and materials).

■Regenerating nature (diverting compost from the waste stream, sequestering carbon in soil).

Making the circular economy happen involves an array of players on a global scale, including businesses, state and federal governments, investors and international institutions. Businesses in particular can embed circular economy principles in their decisions about how to design and sell products and services.

On a state level in Massachusetts, the zero waste legislative caucus — led by Rep. Michelle Ciccolo and Sen. Jason Lewis and including both Rep. Mindy Domb and Sen. Jo Comerford — supports a number of circular economy related bills. A priority is an omnibus single use plastics bill (H. 869, S.579) that would reduce items such as plastic water bottles, nips, stirrers, straws, wipes, take out containers, food trays, plastic bags and polystyrene.

An updated Bigger Better Bottle Bill (H.3289/S.2149) is also moving forward. This would expand the Massachusetts Bottle Bill to include more types of beverage containers, like water bottles and “nips,” and it would increase the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents.

Looking upstream, bills seeking extended producer responsibility are gaining traction. Requiring producers to bear the cost of properly recycling or disposing of their products would not only relieve municipalities of the ever-rising cost of recycling/disposal, it would give producers the incentive to sell products that are less toxic and easier to reuse and recycle. Pending legislation in the 2021-2022 legislative session includes H.878/S.610/S.517 (printed paper and packaging), H.938 (paint), H.988/S.569 (mattresses) and H.979 (electronics).

What can be done on a local level to achieve a circular economy?

Amherst’s 2016 Solid Waste Master Plan established the town’s intention to move toward a zero waste local economy. Fast forward five years and Amherst’s June 2021 Climate Action, Adaptation and Resilience Plan (CAARP) repeats that goal — emphasizing that, in achieving zero waste, “Amherst will develop a circular economy that supports local wealth creation and fair distribution.”

How Can Amherst Create “Circularity?”
Working together, we can reduce trash by diverting food scraps and other compostables to be processed and reused locally. This action alone is predicted to transform 40-50% of our trash into usable compost. Zero Waste Amherst has proposed, and the Board of Health has voted to support, a proposal to transition to a town contract with a single hauler that would include curbside compost pick up in basic service, a pay as you throw fee structure and local compost processing and reuse. According to the CAARP, this option will “increase efficiency, expand the scope of services offered, and reduce vehicle emissions from trash and recycling collection in Amherst’s neighborhoods.”

There are many paths to waste reduction, including encouraging restaurants to participate in a green takeout container program. Restaurants could either use compostable containers, which would be disposed of in compost containers, or they could participate in a reusable ware service (See the Green To Go in Durham, North Carolina, and the Deliver Zero service in Brooklyn, New York).

Other ideas to reduce waste:

■Banning the sale of single use plastic in various forms, starting with plastic water bottles, and installing water refill stations at schools, parks, downtown and at public events.

■ Developing one or more community repair spaces, beginning with a free one at the Transfer Station or another municipal site.

■Encouraging the reuse of products by mainstreaming services like Buy Nothing Amherst and, otherwise, the purchase of locally and sustainably made products.

■ Expanding collection of banned bulky waste and hard to recycle materials like mattresses and electronics.

■Launching a local zero waste outreach, education, and community engagement program using zero waste principles.

■And most important, funding a full-time staff position for a waste reduction coordinator or director to manage, implement and enforce a robust zero waste program for the town.

What will it take to transform our throwaway economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated? The MacArthur Foundations says it well: The circular economy gives us the power to grow prosperity, jobs, and resilience while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.

It is up to us.

Darcy DuMont is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst and of Local Energy Advocates of Western MA. As an Amherst town councilor, she sponsored legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee.

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