In the previous article “The 422 Mantra: Understanding the Circular Economy Industry,” we went over the requirements of circular economy which includes the virtual and real-world integration in the four aspects of material flow, cash flow, data flow, and energy flow. At the same time, we also discussed that despite its unlimited potentials, circular economy nonetheless is restricted by the two basic principles of physics, and that people must possess the abilities of “systems thinking” and “critical thinking” to take advantage of the business opportunities created. For the whole comprehensive view, we have coined the term “422 Mantra.”
Inertia plays a role in the way human thinks, and it takes effort to transform the way of thinking and the understandings of key factors. We have the habit or cutting into every topic from the standpoint of personal perspectives and to define both old and new issues under our own cognitive framework. Take for example the issue of large volumes of waste plastic and paper being shipped to Taiwan due to the recent announcement by the government of mainland China banning the import of “foreign garbage.” In addition to igniting a heated debate over the survival of Taiwan’s recycling industry, the issue also triggered a chain of emotional reflex which people have seen too many times, such as “environmental protection is priceless,” “love Taiwan,” and “spokesperson for business conglomerates” in conversations and exchanges.
Do you employ emotional or logical thinking when discussing circular economy?
In the previous article, we have mentioned that both the core and essence of circular economy is “economy.” Therefore, when approaching the topic of circular economy, you should adopt the economic perspective. If you ignore “supply and demand” which is the basic principle of market economy and think that business model, pricing, and quality are of no importance, you cannot get anywhere.
For the majority of Taiwanese, “recycling” is seen as an integral part of life for the past three decades. We have seen recycling being carried out at elementary schools, middle schools, and communities; we saw the recycling trucks that follow behind the garbage trucks, and we have seen various fliers and pamphlets that tell us recycling is a great idea and a moral value. Therefore, it is quite natural for us to see things from the perspective of “recycling.”
However, the underlying logic of “recycling” is that there exists a market for products created from the process of recycling, processing, and reproduction, as well as reasonable profits to ensure the continual operation of this process. The system formed by recycling-processing-reproduction cycle exists in an open market. Resources from across Taiwan and anywhere in the world can become the raw material for one of the subsidiary markets of the system, as long as the price and quality is right. For example, operators in Pingtung County won the bid to processing Taipei’s recyclables, which happened after several failed bids. This is the power of the market, and the claim of “northerners bullying southerners” is totally irrelevant to the case.
Environmental problem cannot be solved with environmental protection means alone
Our interest in environmental issue, respect for Mother Nature, or what people continue to stress about environmental ethics: these are all important principles pushing our civilization forward and form the core structure in the theory of “sustainable development.” However, environmental issues are closely linked to the economy and social problems. You cannot hope to find solutions to environmental problems by relying upon environmental protection means alone.
Back to the topic of circular economy (or waste recycling): Yes, this is related with social problems, and it is an issue which we find a little worrisome deep down. When you look at the recycling and reproduction process of low-grade plastics described in the documentary Plastic China, will such phenomenon one day find its way to Taiwan and challenge our comparatively more advance environmental regulations? Have the work wage and work environment of Taiwan reached such a low standard to the point of attracting low-grade plastics processing? Can local governments implement comprehensive management? Will they create toxins and end up polluting Taiwan’s environment?
At this point, we should try to set aside our emotions and explore the issue of circular economy from a logical and objective standpoint and bring back the aforementioned elements such as material flow, cash flow, data flow, and energy flow. For example, what is the material flow of all the materials involved in the material-related system of recycle-process-sell? Who ends up buying the products, and how are the prices? What is the cash-flow? What is the overall value of output? How much pollution does it cause? What kind of processing or value-adding method is employed to treat the different waste such as waste plastic, waste paper, and scrap metal when they are imported to Taiwan? How advanced are the technology and management levels? Only through this kind of data flow can we conduct meaningful discussions and debates on this subject. If we really want to solve environmental problems, we must approach the issue from an economic perspective and not allow ourselves to be trapped within a purely environmental view or making demands based on moral grounds. Another question that needs to be answered is where do this information come from? Obviously, only the government have such capabilities, and it should be responsible for providing the public with related information.
In the Education for Sustainable Development Goals published by UNESCO in 2017, the document listed systems thinking and critical thinking among the 8 key competencies for global citizens supporting sustainable development. During the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, the theme chosen was “green economy.” This is one of the major reasons behind the huge push for circular economy in EU and other nations in recent years.
The green economy comprising environment, economic, and social aspects is the most mature sustainable development paradigm developed by human beings as of today. It is impossible to solve environmental challenges purely through environmental protection means, because the natural system is closely linked with social systems.
For the majority of the public, the importance of recycling is not in its roles in economy or industry, but as a self-realizing means such as accumulating merits or feeling like a better man. This is where critical thinking encourages us to go against our instincts and to structuralize the problem through systems thinking. What I would like to suggest is to examine one’s own stance on the issue through the following approaches:
- When we talk about this issue, am I putting more emphasis on “emotion” instead of “logic”?
- When determining policies, am I emphasizing more “politics” and less “scientific principles”?
- When discussing achievements, do I talk about “numbers” or “real effects”?
- When talking about sustainable development, do I stress “education” and disregard “commercial values”?
- When I accuse others of being not environmentally friendly, do I value “environmental protection” over “sustainability”?
Any innovative solutions begin with breakthroughs against the inertia of thinking within ourselves. Only by learning the process of making complex decisions in the real world can we truly enter the core thinking of circular economy. And only through this can we implement the ideal step-by-step in real-world commercial scenarios. Perhaps the ultimate form of sustainable development can provide a better definition of morality.