The Circular Economy: A Sensible Way to Achieve Sustainability

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In the months before the coronavirus pandemic, sustainability had become a lightning rod for lawmakers in Washington and New York. But with businesses reeling, we cannot afford to return to the same costly, job-killing environmental policies of the past.

Even with 47 million Americans unemployed, some politicians appear ready to continue doubling down on a sustainability approach built around regulating businesses and entire industries to the point of extinction. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recently tapped Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to co-chair his climate change committeeCollectively, they have pushed some of the most radical anti-business proposals in U.S. history. 

But rather than appealing to partisan extremists, lawmakers have a responsibility to use the economic recovery to pursue more sensible plans for sustainability that simultaneously support job creation. One prominent example is investing in the circular economy, which will increase productivity, reduce waste, and put more Americans back to work — all without forcing companies to bear the burden of so-called green policies of the past. 

For years, we’ve heard the far left insist that far-reaching environmental regulations are the only way to save the planet, pitting the interests of businesses against those of the environment. The result: a high-tax, overly burdensome regulatory environment that wrapped small businesses in all sorts of red tape. 

But this was a false choice all along. There are practical ways we can encourage companies to make more sustainable decisions while also fueling economic growth. And the government can support that evolution by providing incentives to business leaders who are looking to incorporate sustainable practices and create more jobs that lead to a broader tax base and a more resilient economy.  

The circular economy is just that: A business-friendly plan for sustainability. 

The circular economy is based around the simple idea of keeping materials and goods flowing through recycling and repair. Businesses can lower production costs by recovering and regenerating materials at the end of their lifecycle. The environmental benefits of this system are obvious, as reducing the need for raw materials means fewer emissions and less waste going to landfills. 

But just as importantly, the ripple effects of the circular economy could be enormous. The United Nation’s International Resource Panel estimated that using resources more effectively could increase the size of the global economy by $2 trillion by 2050. Businesses would also benefit from greater emphasis on locally sourced materials by sharing discarded waste to transform into new products. 

Taking a new approach to sustainable resource management could help grow jobs across nearly every sector and industry. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates a shift toward the circular economy could generate 100,000 new jobs over the next five years. Moving towards a more circular economy is also estimated to help increase disposable income for households by more than 11 percent over the next decade. With the economy desperate for job growth in the wake of the damage from the COVID-19 shutdown, the circular economy could provide a glimmer of hope. 

But achieving a more sustainable future cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of businesses; lawmakers need to put these principles at the center of their plans for regional sustainability.

We are already seeing other parts of the world reap the benefits by rolling back regulations. Even in progressive cities like Amsterdam and Brussels, companies and local governments are coming together to identify and eliminate regulatory barriers holding back circular economy growth, helping to unleash the power of the private sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that we need a better approach to public policy than the burdensome regulations of the past. Embracing the circular economy as a new focus for environmental policymaking will put us on a path for long-term growth.

John Burnett is the managing director and founder of 1 Empire Group, a consulting firm. He is a member of the adjunct faculty at NYU.

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