Waste Not
Workers at the Heart of the Circular Economy
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Imagine a world without waste: no cardboard waste, no lost heat energy, no food waste. Imagine an industrial world that mimics nature where every end product is used as the starting material for something else. Imagine a world where, instead of following a linear progression from creation to disposal (cradle to grave), products follow a circular path (cradle to cradle). You are imagining the circular economy.
The circular economy is a systemic approach intended to eliminate waste in materials and energy flows throughout extraction, production, use, and disposal, and to repurpose outputs as useful inputs to other products. As sustainable practices become more popular and practical, the circular economy is quickly expanding in industry and will introduce additional hazards and considerations for the occupational health expert.
For example, as reported in Chemical & Engineering News, a European chemical company has begun making sodium bicarbonate using carbon dioxide from its gas-fired power plant in place of carbon dioxide bought from a vendor. This process change entailed redesigning the plant and ensuring the pharmaceutical-grade quality of the product. Neither of these requirements could have been achieved without upgrading workers’ skills and knowledge.
A more daunting example is plastics, 90 percent of which are not recycled using the mechanical methods currently available. A paper in a recent issue of Science describes the development of entirely new processes that use a combination of chemical oxidation and biological conversion. Workers must design the process, build the equipment, and learn how to operate and maintain the system—all of which require new knowledge and skills. Changes such as these place workers at the heart of the circular economy.
FROM OUTPUT TO INPUT The circular economy is rooted in the environmental movement that started in the 1960s. In 1966, the economist Kenneth Boulding proposed that production cycles adjust to the closed system of resources in the context of planet earth. Boulding was inspired by Rachel Carson’s observation that industrial expansion and environmental degradation were related. But the term circular economy did not appear for another twenty years.
An ongoing experiment in the generation and delivery of electricity in the Danish city of Kalundborg has come to signify the promise of the circular economy. Excess heat generated by a Kalundborg power station was originally condensed from steam and discharged to a nearby fjord. Beginning in 1972, this excess steam was diverted to an oil refinery, which sent its waste gas to the power station in exchange. As sharing developed through what came to be known as the Kalundborg Symbiosis, the power plant was able to direct its waste steam to a local pharmaceutical company, local greenhouses, a fish farm, and about 3,500 homes in the town. Without the steam from the power plant, these entities would have had to use fossil fuels for heating. Calcium sulfate, produced by the local oil company as a byproduct of desulfurization, is used by a French gypsum board maker. Elemental sulfur obtained by catalytic reduction of sulfur-containing gases is sold to a chemical company. Fly ash, which is produced when fossil fuel is burned, is used by a nearby concrete company. Currently, the Kalundborg Symbiosis provides more than 30 examples of how the output from one industrial process becomes the input for another.
TWO HALVES Drawing on ideas expressed in the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the two halves of the circular economy as “things,” which consist of finite materials, and “biologicals,” which are made from recyclable materials capable of cyclic renewal. Things include cars, computers, toasters, and many other items that people discard at the end of their useful life. In the cradle-to-grave model, these items are often disposed of in landfills or simply put aside in places like auto graveyards and piles of tires. Biologicals include items such as food, water, and energy. It takes energy and water to grow food, which is consumed, excreted, and eventually returned to the soil where the process can start over. Placing food in a landfill disrupts this process.
To minimize natural resource extraction and unusable waste, significant changes are needed not only in how work is performed but also in what work is undertaken. As described in the 2013 book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, in the recent past, most things were reused or repurposed many times before being discarded, and people used to fix things rather than throw them out. Repair shops used to be abundant, but few still exist, at least in part because of the limitations that electronics manufacturers place on what users can do with the devices they purchase. A circular economy would need many more repair technicians than are available today for items from electronics to lawn furniture. Imagine getting your phone updated and repaired instead of throwing it away with all its precious metal and plastic as well as embedded energy and water.
Significant changes are needed not only in how work is performed but also in what work is undertaken.

Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is a corollary of the circular economy that requires manufacturers to design products with separable components so they can be recycled at the end of a product’s useful life. Unfortunately, many items were designed to be discarded. For example, the lithium batteries that power electric vehicles cannot be separated into their reusable components. The circular economy will require more creative, highly trained designers and engineers.
The sharing economy is another aspect of the circular economy. For example, many cities have tool libraries, which maintain many different types of tools that people need to work at home or even at their jobs. Construction contractors have followed this model for decades. The tool or piece of equipment is rented for the time it is used. The rent money funds upkeep of the tool and salaries for those involved in renting it. Sharing or leasing enterprises also exist for cars, bicycles, and other items such as washing machines. Workers are needed to organize and run these enterprises. Workers who possess the skills needed to maintain whatever things are being shared or leased will play an important role in the circular economy.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT The International Labor Organization estimates that, by 2030, global employment would grow about 0.1 percent faster if a circular economy were adopted than if business as usual prevailed. The International Institute for Sustainable Development expects significant growth (14 to 31 percent) in reprocessing steel, repair of personal and household goods, and solar photovoltaics, as well as substantial growth (approximately 15 percent) in metals recycling, research and development, and vehicle maintenance and repair.
A paper published last year by Anne P.M. Velenturf and Phil Purnell in the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption evaluated how the circular economy would contribute to achieving each of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Velenturf and Purnell’s opinion, the circular economy would enable achieving up to 75 percent of the targets under the 8th SDG, decent work and economic growth. Although all SDGs affect workers, the goal of decent work for all would have perhaps the greatest impact. The authors argue that the circular economy can also “generate new business opportunities, limit material costs and price volatility, reduce dependency on imports and increase resource security.”
The ILO contends that jobs rely on a healthy and stable environment and emphasizes the importance of developing legal frameworks, social dialogues, and environmental policies to ensure decent work in a circular economy. The ILO defines decent work as

work that is productive, delivers a fair income, offers security in the workplace and social protection for all, contributes to personal development and social integration, and grants people the freedom to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and ensures equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.
The type of work performed in a circular economy will be different from the type of work performed since the mid-1900s. Success will depend on the skills, knowledge, and well-being of the people performing the work. And the health, safety, and well-being of these workers depend on the ability of occupational health experts to anticipate, evaluate, and control the hazards and risks associated with working in a circular economy.

MARY O’REILLY, PhD, CIH, CPE, FAIHA, is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health, current president of Workplace Health Without Borders, and chair of the AIHA Stewardship and Sustainability Committee.
AUBREY ARAIN, PhD, is an industrial hygiene specialist at California Polytechnic State University and vice chair of the AIHA Stewardship and Sustainability Committee.
ERICA DOMBROWSKI, MPH, CIH, is a health and safety specialist at Insight Global in Redmond, Washington, and a member of the AIHA Stewardship and Sustainability Committee.
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Bloomsbury Press: Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (2013).
Chemical and Engineering News: “Tata and LG Chem Advance Carbon Capture and Utilization” (July 2022).
Ellen Macarthur Foundation: “The Circular Economy in Detail.”
Harper: The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (1993).
International Institute of Sustainable Development: “Estimating Employment Effects of the Circular Economy” (PDF, September 2018).
International Labor Organization: “Decent Work.”
International Labor Organization: “World Employment and Social Outlook 2018: Greening with Jobs” (PDF, 2018).
Johns Hopkins Press: “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (December 1966).
North Point Press: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002). 
Prentice Hall: Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Engineering (2010).
Science: “Recycling Plastic Using a Hybrid Process: Integrating Oxidation and Bioconversion Provides a Solution to Recycle Mixed Plastics” (October 2022).
Sustainable Production and Consumption: “Principles for a Sustainable Circular Economy” (July 2021).