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The Insider

‘Circular Economy’ Proponents Seek To Define Environmental Programs

Proponents of innovative “circular economy” efforts that aim to reuse waste products and reduce pollution are seeking to create firm definitions for the novel environmental programs that will help achieve circular economy goals, whether mandatory or voluntary industry-led measures.

Although the concept of a circular economy is growing in popularity, one hurdle to its broader use is the fact that various countries and companies define it in different ways.

Advocates for narrow definitions, which could exclude some important industry practices -- such as recycling chemicals in plastics -- will spar with advocates for a more inclusive definition, with much at stake for U.S. businesses, says Mike Levy, a former plastics and chemicals industry official and now a senior associate with Sacramento, CA-based environmental consulting firm First Environment, in an interview with Inside EPA’s Environment Next.

Levy is a senior U.S. representative involved in ongoing talks at the influential International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on defining circular economy standards.

ISO Launches High-Stakes ‘Circular-Economy’ Standards Negotiations
The influential International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is launching high-stakes talks with businesses, government officials and others over how to define “circular economy” efforts, as ISO looks for ways to codify the emerging circularity concept for industries.

ISO is a global standards-setting body with representatives from national standards organizations in many countries, including the United States. It is internationally recognized for its rigorous consensus-based standards, with many in wide use for lifecycle assessment, environmental management systems, environmental labeling, greenhouse gas management and others. By tackling a circular economy standard, ISO is recognizing the growing momentum behind the concept, while noting the lack of agreement on a global view of how organizations can operate in truly circular fashion, for example by reducing pollution and reusing waste products.

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum has called the circular economy a “trillion-dollar opportunity” -- one that has attracted widespread corporate, academic, and other interest with its potential for significantly affecting how products are designed and managed through their entire life cycle. The concept has implications for jobs, innovation, and economic growth while lessening the damage to ecosystems from expanding human consumption.

U.S. organizations are heavily involved in finding ways to define and promote a circular economy, including the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA). This organization, the latest in our ongoing series of exclusive profiles, has members including 3M, Chevron, the American Forest & Paper Association, EPA, and the American Chemistry Council. It is a non-profit group that aims to build use of lifecycle assessment, a tool that is already well-established for analyzing some environmental issues like waste reduction.


American Center for Life Cycle Assessment
The American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA), which promotes environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) as a tool for pollution reduction strategies including sustainability, is preparing to host a major conference later this month that will include a debate on how to apply LCA in the emerging concept of a “circular economy” and in tackling climate change.

ACLCA will host its 19th conference from Sept. 23 to 26 in Tucson, AZ, to hear from federal officials, private sector representatives and others on their lifecycle assessment and circular economy efforts. Lifecycle assessment generally refers to assessing the environmental impacts from all stages of a product’s life from raw materials through to becoming waste.

Each annual meeting generates discussion among members about important environmental topics, including the measurement of consumption and its impact on sustainability. At the upcoming Tucson meeting, for example, Department of Energy (DOE) program officials will discuss their perspectives on the circular economy, including how it impacts their missions, and another session will feature DOE experts sharing how they use LCA to assess the environmental advantages and disadvantages of different energy technologies and policy options.

Officials from EPA, DOE, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies will also hold a session to provide updates on the LCA Commons, a repository funded by nine federal agencies and laboratories serving as a central access point for data sets specifically formatted for LCA applications. The LCA Commons also serves as a placeholder for an LCA repository in the planning stages that will contain research from many federal entities.

Plastics are a major issue in the discussion over a circular economy, with companies looking at voluntary efforts that will reduce plastics waste and increase reuse, as our David LaRoss writes in Environment Next’s latest From The Editor opinion piece.


Broad Calls To Reduce Plastics Prompt Questions About Viable Strategies
For a snapshot of where environmental protection is headed over the next few years, consider the memorable career advice Benjamin Braddock received in The Graduate: “Plastics.”

He writes: “Cutting back on plastic in the marketplace has long been a target for environmentalists; it’s both a common waste that famously clogs oceans and endangers wildlife in a long list of ways, and a petroleum product with a carbon-heavy production process.

“What’s changed is that now environmentalists have some powerful company targeting plastics. Waste plastic has become one of the few priorities for new policymaking at the rule-averse Trump EPA, and with industry increasingly feeling pressure to embrace sustainability, cutting plastic packaging and single-use disposable products is a visible way for companies to show their bona-fides.

“Yet as rare as it is for those three fronts to align on any environmental subject, what we’re seeing right now is that it’s not enough for everybody to agree that plastic is a problem. They’re going to have to agree on what exactly to do about it, and ideally even work together to achieve that goal, which is proving to be a much taller order.”

And in a sign of just how difficult it can be to reach consensus on new approaches to environmental protection and pollution reduction, conservatives are split over whether they should endorse any type of clean energy program.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market group representing some state legislators, recently held its annual meeting where it unanimously voted down a resolution that would have backed some market-based environmental programs as alternatives to Democrats’ Green New Deal that many conservatives oppose.

Failure Of ALEC Climate Plan Shows Hurdle For Market-Based Programs
The conservative Heartland Institute is claiming as a victory the free-market American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) of state legislators’ refusal to adopt a resolution supporting voluntary market-based approaches that boost clean energy, underscoring that even non-regulatory climate strategies still face strong right-wing opposition.

The resolution, offered by non-legislator members of ALEC, was framed as a conservative response to progressives’ Green New Deal and explicitly rejected both that framework and any other direct greenhouse gas limits. Instead, it called for an “energy freedom” approach to renewables in which the government “doesn’t pick winners and losers in the economy.”

Yet Heartland’s Climate and Environmental Policy Director James Taylor in a postmortem for the proposal attacks that language as too left-wing for the GOP, and touts the resolution’s defeat as proof that conservatives are united not just against GHG regulations but any strategy to bolster solar power, wind farms and other renewables.

“Concerned that government promotion of so-called clean energy ultimately means limiting the use of abundant, relatively inexpensive, domestic supplies of coal, oil, and even natural gas, because they all emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct of combustion, not a single ALEC legislator voiced support for the proposed resolution in deliberations leading up to a proposed vote,” Taylor says.

A lack of agreement will not stop all efforts to promote clean energy and new programs with different approaches to environmental protection than the traditional EPA command-and-control model. Indeed, a lawmaker in Washington state says a new clean energy law effectively will implement a carbon tax despite some GOP and industry opposition to such a tax.

Washington state lawmaker says clean energy law ‘ends up’ as carbon tax
A Washington legislator says her state’s clean energy law that she supports, which mandates zero net greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector by 2045, “ends up” imposing a carbon price despite voters rejecting a stand-alone carbon tax in last year’s elections, signaling a potential path forward for carbon tax supporters to achieve their goal.

Appearing on the Sept. 3 installment of Resources for the Future’s Resources Radio podcast, state Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D) said the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA), which Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed into law in May, imposes a de facto carbon tax on facilities that exceed legal emissions limits. “[A]s an environmental economist, we all know that our favorite policy is a price on carbon. And so one of the alternative compliance [provisions] is an administrative penalty, but it ends up being a carbon price of about a hundred dollars per ton. And there are some methods to have that increase with fiscal growth factors or inflation. It's not technically written in as a price of $100 per ton of carbon. It's per megawatt hour of electricity,” she said.

That figure is far higher than the $15 per metric ton that Washington voters rejected in a 2018 ballot proposal, and it is incorporated into the law as a penalty rather than the cost of doing business. “So there's not a direct carbon price, but there's an implied carbon price going on in there,” interviewer Daniel Raimi said.