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Wed Sep 9, 2020, 02:46 AM

Editorial: Circularity. What's the Problem?

This editorial perfectly summarizes my personal outlook on environmental issues, so much so that I wish I had written it.

It's in the current issue of ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. Regrettably, I think it's behind a paywall:

Circularity. What’s the Problem? (Paul T. Anastas, ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2020, 8, 35, 13111)

Some brief excerpts:

Every reader of this journal wishes to solve societal and ecological problems. Otherwise, they would be content with choosing to study scientific challenges that see no shame in irrelevance...

...Some of these historically derived yet lingering problems are receiving a tremendous amount of focus today. These include the following:

Achieving durability in materials without consideration for persistence in our bodies and the biosphere, especially our oceans.

Achieving convenience of data and information access while our electronics are dispersing critical metal and metalloid elements.

Achieving unprecedented crop yields while contaminating water resources with agricultural chemical runoff...

...The most recent example that must be examined is the very hot topic of the circular economy whose conceptual construct of moving toward cycling our material economy and eliminating waste is undeniably compelling. So what must be done in order to ensure this elegant theory is put into equally elegant practice? Perhaps a noncomprehensive list may include the following:

Ensure that energy, which is so often left out of the discussions of materials circularity, is integrated as the essential component that it is.

Ensure that the nature and character of the materials and energy within these cycles are considered at least as important as the stock, flows, and quantities of them.

Ensure that the timeframes and widely differing commercial lifespans of various materials streams are considered while attempting to build these circular constructs.

Ensure that the actual act of separation/isolation/purification of complex material streams—that can have in many cases, in itself, negative environmental, economic, and societal impacts—does not dwarf the original problem attempting to be solved.

Ensure that a circular economy construct definitionally envisions continuity and predictability of specified material flows that recognizes we are living in a dynamic world that will not become static in order to service circularity...

...The circular economy is an elegant concept that can contribute to a more sustainable society if its problem statement is thoughtfully designed and implemented wisely, with forethought for unintended consequences such as those outlined above. Alternatively, a half-designed circular economy would be yet another example of good intentions gone awry...

The part I have put in bold, is the most important of all the many insightful statements this editorial contains.

Without highly dense energy, utilized to maximal efficiency to assure equitable distribution, all is lost.

The issues in this editorial summarize perfectly what we must do to build a sustainable society, and delineate how far, exactly, we are from it.

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