Opportunities and challenges for a Circular Economy in the context of emerging economies of the Americas
Last May 30th, I had the opportunity to interview two inspiring Brazilian women who have been doing an amazing work in the field of Circular Economy in the Americas, specifically in the Brazilian context. In this interview, Carla Tennenbaum and Léa Gejer co-founders of IDEIA CIRCULAR, a key partner of the Circular Economy Platform of the Americas, tell us about their experience in supporting the transition to a Circular Economy. They shared with us lots of valuable information about the opportunities that circular economy offers and the challenges that we need to overcome, to make the circular economy a reality in the American Continent.
1. Can you please tell us about yourself and your experience on circular economy?
Carla: I´ve been researching waste since I was 12 years old, in 1992. Before the Earth Summit in Rio, our school had us study ecological themes for the science class, and my group researched solid waste. So, I went to Rio for the summit with other children to represent our school. Since this early age, I was interested in these issues - I wanted to understand the world and why the things are the way they are, and how we can change what needs to be changed. In 1995, I went to the United World College in New Mexico in the USA, where I had the privilege to study with hundreds of other young people from over 70 countries. I was exposed to a lot of new information - about the environment and many social and political issues that I had no idea existed before. When I came back to Brazil, I studied History at the University of Sao Paulo, and I really enjoyed this process of analysing different narratives and how we have organized our societies at different points in time. Although I’ve never worked as a historian, I think this approach has contributed to my fascination with the Circular Economy, as a vision of how we can organize our society.
While at the university, I also studied object design for 2 years with the Campana brothers, two very renowned Brazilian designers, and I co-founded a collective called NotechDesign, which had a very playful experimental approach to materials and objects. And I started my own artistic research with EVA foam: a colorful material that generates a lot of waste, which I used as a starting point for developing high-value products. This was my empiric graduation in design: I researched how to develop the systems that could transform EVA and how to create productive chains that complement each other and keep the value of this material flowing without generating any waste. Along this process I researched a lot about eco-design and sustainability and this is when I came across the Cradle to Cradle design concept, which was very important for how I viewed design and waste in a deeper sense, and also the Circular Economy, which had started to come up as a concept, and this really fascinated me - so I’ve been researching this for over 10 years now. And I’ve been guiding different groups of people - companies, artisans cooperatives, teenagers, senior citizens, a lot of diverse groups - in creative processes, helping them develop their own products or improve products from this perspective of creating value from materials into products that can be reused, or fixed or recycled.
In 2014, Lea and I found out that we were both researching Cradle to Cradle and circular design at a time when no one in Brazil was talking about it, so we started working together trying to promote this approach locally. And after a year of realising that it was a little too soon here for companies to adopt this, we decided to create Ideia Circular as platform for discussing and also investigating how to tropicalize these ideas, and how they could be applied to inspire circular projects in Brazil. We’ve been doing this for the past 4-5 years, and we’ve seen that the interest in the circular economy is really starting to flourish now.
Mostly we want to contribute to make circular economy a reality in Brazil, and that’s what we are working to do with Ideia Circular: we give a lot of inspiring examples and discuss the concepts more in depth, but we have also created an online training program that is called Circular Economy in Practice. We put a lot of thought about how to break it down into the principles and the criteria that we use, that are inspired by the Cradle to Cradle methodology, and how people can really put this into practice in their projects. It has been extremely inspiring to work so closely with highly motivated entrepreneurs from all over the country!
Lea: I graduated in Architecture and Urban planning. After I graduated I started to work in a standard architecture office here in Brazil, and I was not very satisfied with this work, so I quit my job and decided to do a Masters in Urban Environmental Management in Holland, where I focused on understanding how sustainability can be applied to the built environment. There I got to know Cradle to Cradle design, and my masters thesis was about Cradle to Cradle in the built environment. I came back to Brazil after that, and I really wanted to apply all this knowledge to my work, but couldn’t find any architecture or urban planning office that would work with closing cycles of materials, energy and water. So, at that point I opened my own office that is called FLOCK, and I started to apply circular design to my projects. One of the first works I did was to go to a workshop in Araripe, a region in Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil, where 97% of the gypsum consumed in Brazil comes from. Michael Braungart was invited to work in this workshop for creating a circular economy in the gypsum pool, and I was there working with him. We got to know each other and he really liked my portfolio and work and he invited me to represent EPEA at my office FLOCK, so I started to work with him, and to understand how the whole industry was working towards a circular economy (or not) here in Brazil. At this point, I met Carla, so I kept FLOCK that is my architecture office and we also launched Ideia Circular, facing all these difficulties that Carla mentioned as nobody then understood what the circular economy or Cradle to Cradle design were.
We did something very nice at our office, that is what we call the first circular house here in Brazil, in Sao Paulo. It is a small house but we designed it as a material bank, so we know everything we put inside the house, from where this comes, where it can go afterwards, and we are also working for closing the loops for water and energy. It was a very interesting project and also a very interesting experience because we could really understand in a practical way how is the whole production chain for civil construction here in Brazil. Together with that, Carla and I are working very hard in Ideia Circular to understand how the circular economy can be applied to the Brazilian scenario, and who is doing what, because there are many nice projects going on here in Brazil and South America. We are bringing together all these projects and these people and it’s been a very interesting experience. There is another thing that I did last year for the largest innovation festival here in Sao Paulo that is called Path Festival - I was the curator for the circular economy theme and I got together lots of stakeholders to discuss how and what is our stake inside the circular economy frame, and it was very interesting. As a result of all this hard work I got a highly-commended award for leadership in The Circulars 2019.
Carla: This year, we were also invited to be part of the jury for two circular economy awards: Lea is in the leadership group for the MIT’s Solve Challenge, which has a circular economy edition this year, as part of the jury and mentors in this program, and I am part of the jury of the National Geographic Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge.
2. For you, what is a circular economy and why the Americas should transition towards this paradigm?
Carla: In CEFA2018, I heard people describe the Circular Economy as a strategy, and to me it’s a little different. I think the Circular Economy is an image… A guiding image of how the industry and the economy could and actually must operate if we want to secure a good future for our children.
It is a vision of an industrial and economic system that is designed to be regenerative and to eliminate the concept of waste by keeping resources circulating in the highest possible value through biological and technical cycles. And I think the Americas should transition towards this because it’s the only way to go, as far as I can see, and I don’t hear anyone proposing anything as inspiring as this. We believe, Lea and I, that this transition is not only possible, but it’s necessary, and the governments and companies and people and countries who understand and who intentionally invest in this transformation are taking the leadership towards a future of abundance rather than scarcity.
I think that in the Americas, we have a history of operation in a very linear system: because we were colonies, we have the history of having all the materials extracted and all the value taken somewhere else – this is how our agriculture and also our industry started out, and how they mostly still operate to this day in many countries, relying on extraction and exporting raw materials and commodities. So, I think that the challenge for us is to revert this logic and think about how we can really regenerate our systems and keep value in circulation.
Before, the sustainability movement was about doing less harm and just compensating, and I think this is the first time ever we have a positive vision of what we want to be, and this is very important for us as a society, to have something to guide us. But I don’t think this is a strategy, because there is not nearly a consensus of exactly what the principles or methodologies are. We are building this movement together, and I think that there are different strategies that can be used, but the most important thing is to have this as a guiding image of where we want to get.
LEA: I believe that circular economy is another way of living with our resources, with our economy to achieve human wellbeing. It is a tool that gives us a chance to overcome all this crisis that we are facing now. And I think that not only the Americas but the whole world should transition to this paradigm, should use this tool to overcome all this. As Carla said this is not only a beautiful idea but is a necessity that we should thrive
3. Considering your background on Design
a. How important is this to achieve a Circular Economy?
LEA: Well, for me design is the most important step for a circular economy. We can talk about a building, a mobile or about a suit: the way we think is the same way, we should redesign stuff so they can remain continuously in the economy and in their best quality. So, this idea of managing waste, recycling and minimizing harm is very important, but those are transitional activities for a circular economy. When we think about a building as a material bank or a mobile phone as a material bank, we are working with intentions, so we can add to our stuff positive materials, positive ideas and the use in continuous cycles, from “cradle to cradle”, and this is how I believe we can work for a positive future.
CARLA: For me, design is everything - and we work with a wider view of design. Specially in Brazil where design is a foreign word, people understand it as the shape of a building or the shape of a car, but we work with the idea of design as intention. In English when you say we are doing something by design rather than by chance, it has to do with intentionality, and I think intentionality plays a huge part in the circular economy. In this case, it is about creating systems that are regenerative by design, and that means that they are intentionally regenerative. So, it´s not just about product design, but the design of processes and business models. Just being intentional about where we want to go as individuals, as companies, and as species: where do we want to go? All this, for me, has to do with design, with intention. Even if you think just about the materiality, the product design, component design, or materials design, and think about what happens to a material, or a component or product, after its first use cycle. Here is where the success of any circular economy is determined, as Léa was saying, this has to be considered in the design phase, so at the moment when we are conceiving a product, and not as an afterthought of trying to figure out what to do with this particular waste. So, I think that we need design to create high-quality circular systems. And I think that design has this interface between science and art: there is a technical aspect but there is also the art in a wider sense of how we can be creative and intentional in our industries.
b. Currently, are companies in the Americas designing for a Circular Economy?
LEA: I can tell you more about Brazil, where I work with companies and people, and there are companies already working on circular economy. From small to large ones, there are companies designing new materials, for biological cycles, or even using waste from the industry to produce positive materials for the technical cycle. There are also start-ups that are creating innovation tools for tracking materials all over the chain, and large companies that are reviewing the way they deal with resources. So I am very positive in this moment. I think this is the moment that these ideas are flourishing, and they are taking a larger scale, and , - good consequences.
CARLA: General speaking I think not, companies are not yet designing for a circular economy, but as Lea said there are a lot of inspiring and innovative, exciting projects. You see a lot of progress here in Brazil in some productive chains that are fit for value creation, specifically for the biological cycle, in agriculture, researching bioplastics and plastic substitutes. But I think we are very behind in a crucial aspect that is the health of materials. Because we come from the Cradle to Cradle perspective, this is very important in our approach to Circular Economy: we are not only designing materials to be recycled but also thinking about whether they are healthy and safe for humans and for the planet, and in this sense, we are very behind. For example, we have substances that are allowed in Brazil that have been banned in Europe for many years, specially in agriculture, as pesticides. There are projects for laws that would make this even worse, and our current federal government is not very progressive or visionary in this sense. I think we already have inspiring examples but there is also a lot of ground to be covered.
Regarding material health, when we give courses or speeches, we like to talk about how the need to redefine quality. Because right now you can have a good product, but it has some side effects - maybe it’s an allergy or it goes to the trash after the first time you use it. But this can’t be considered a good product if it’s bad for your health or for the biosphere. So I think that companies need to redefine quality, and as Lea said, people are asking for this, and it is very important. They want good products, and good means in the whole sense: good for the people, good for the environment, and keeping the value of resources circulating.
c. Which are the opportunities for companies and entrepreneurs to design goods and services for a Circular Economy?
LEA: From my perspective the most important opportunity is that consumers are asking for good materials and good products. We are not talking about the government because we cannot expect anything from it right now. It’s not about rules, it’s not about economic revenues, so more than that, it’s about people. People are asking for good products and they are asking what’s going to happen next to their mobile phone or their houses, or everything they use. I think this is the most important opportunity here in Brazil.
CARLA: I think there is a huge opportunity because everything needs to be redesigned. If you think that everything was designed for a linear economy, and we are trying to make this shift, everything needs to be redesigned with these principles in mind. So, we have infinite opportunities for innovation, and this is innovation that is necessary that is intentional, no just this trendy idea of innovation. So, I think this is the biggest opportunity that we’ve seen, to redesign our whole industry.
d. Are companies and governments investing in innovation in Brazil?
CARLA: I think we are still not in the best place for innovation. Brazilians we have a very innovative creative spirit and I think that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially smaller companies, are very interested in innovating, and they are doing this against all odds, but we don’t have public policies to really support innovation. Legislation is usually punitive for polluters, and even so not usually informed, but we don’t really have a lot of mechanisms to support this kind of innovation for small companies and also for big companies. We feel that companies want to do this but a lot of them don’t have the resources or don’t want to allocate resources to really going deep with innovation.
LEA: I agree that people have an innovative mind and that there is a lack of incentives for innovation, but I also think that companies in general are afraid of being ahead… Many times, when we try to “sell” the idea of circular economy to companies, we go back with the answer of “is there somebody else doing this?”, “Am I going to be the first one?” “What happens if it doesn’t work?”. Sometimes, we still have this colonial way of thinking where nobody wants to be the first. I am telling you mainly about the big businesses, that are very worried about their instant revenue, they are more conservative. On the other hand, I also know that there are a lot of innovations going on in small businesses and small initiatives.
4. Which are the potential barriers for a Circular Economy transition in the Americas?
LEA: Well, we already talked about legislation and norms, I think they are still not very helpful. For instance, in Brazil, if you want to recycle a plastic bottle, you have to pay the same tax as if you are extracting the raw materials. What happens is that you pay taxes twice, when you extract and then when you recycle. This is one thing that is a great barrier that we must overcome. Another thing that I think is very particular to South America, and probably the southern hemisphere, is that we have to deal with a lot of informal activities. We faced lots of problems when we were building the house (Casa Circular) because we had to work with informal workers, because this is the business as usual for construction. Moreover, there are some materials that we still don’t know many things about, for example, what is our ceiling made of. In Brazil, we also have the political scenario that is very bad from an environmental point of view. The question is how can we work forward when all the political scenario is going backwards. It’s been hard for us to understand what to expect for the coming years.
CARLA: I agree with what Lea said, I would also add from what I was saying before, from this historic point of view. I think that in the Americas, in general, we have this heritage of colonialism, which comes with this predatory thinking, of just exploiting the land, and also exploiting people for their work. And we still carry this thinking to the present, and the political climate is kind of taking this to an extreme now, because before people used to at least pretend that they were concerned about the environment, now I think we have a group of politicians in power that don’t even want to pretend: they think it’s bad to not cut down trees as it prevents ‘progress’ so they’re literally trying to make it possible for landowners to cut down trees without any legal consequence, and to expand exploration of the Amazon, for instance, which is cause of great concern worldwide as it worsens the climate crisis. In general, though, I think this colonial mindset is a big problem, because all our riches used to go somewhere else - to the colonizing powers, and afterwards when we became independent and industrialized we still follow this logic. Our economy is still very much based on extracting raw materials and exporting instead of benefitting them, with everything: with our coffee, soy, meat, minerals, all the best goes away. I wonder how we can challenge this kind of thinking of extracting the land and having people work for less than the minimum wage or a minimum wage that they can’t even making a living out of. So, I think our economy is still based on this colonial mindset, and I think this is a big barrier, a barrier particular to the Americas and other former colonies.
Also I think there is a legislation part that Lea mentioned, we need to go beyond that, and in Brazil, the political climate is so intense and polarized, and there are so many discussions that are very pressing that people don’t seem to give so much importance to the environmental issues: the right, the left, everyone seems to think this is an afterthought. So we are discussing a lot of economic policies for our future, but people don’t realise that we won’t have a very bright future if we won’t take care of our resources.
5. How can a Circular Economy be enabled in the Americas?
CARLA; I think there are a few things that we talked about already. The part about legislation would be a good thing, but as Lea said, we are not so hopeful in the short term. But I think even if the federal government is not so keen on this, there are other ways in smaller instances to do this. As Lea said, this is why we founded Ideia Circular: to raise awareness about this in companies and producers but also for consumers, to help people understand what they should be asking of the products they use, and how they could be more engaged with this transformation.
LEA: Here in Brazil we talk about waste pickers and how they are an important part for a circular economy. They should also know they are an important part of the circular economy and that better materials have to be designed for their work. I think that Latin America has this issue of being unequal but at the same time you must use it as a way of inviting everybody to participate in this transition.
CARLA: To build on what Lea said, we not only have to educate waste pickers about the circular economy but they can educate us, and they can educate companies also about the value of materials, because they’ve been working closely with these materials, with whatever is wasted, and they know very well what kind of waste can be recycled, what waste cannot, so they(waste pickers) are material experts, and we have to consider their input as protagonists in this movement.
LEA: Yeah and I think when we include all people, we get stronger in all senses.
CARLA: And when we talk about reverse logistics, also we come back to the design problems, because if products, components or materials aren’t designed to be reused, recycled or repaired, it’s almost impossible to have an effective reverse logistics because then it’s not financially viable for companies, so designing things from the beginning really helps with extended responsibility and reverse logistics.
This is the first in a series of Circular Economy interviews that we will be developing in the upcoming months. The Circular Economy Platform of the Americas presents information on Circular Economy from and for the Americas and is committed to identifying challenges, opportunities and the path to transitioning to a Circular Economy in the American Continent. Stay tuned and follow our activities!
[i] Claudia Lorena García is an independent consultant in innovation and circular economy and
currently leads some projects under the Circular Economies Program of the Americas
Sustainable Development Foundation (ASDF). She is a chemical engineer and holds a master’s
degree in innovation management from the University of Bath, UK. Her master’s thesis
analyzed the challenges and opportunities for a Circular Economy transition in low-and middle-
income countries in the Americas