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  • Aasavari Joshi

Ensuring a Fair and Just Transition to a Circular Economy

All items are recycled, repaired, or reused in a circular economy. Efforts to promote a more circular economy cause changes in waste systems, which are crucial to more than 20 million people employed in the global informal waste sector. A just transition is one in which the change to a more environmentally friendly economy creates and maintains good, inclusive jobs in which workers negatively impacted by such shifts are incorporated into new systems or allowed to retrain for alternative occupations. This transition is only a feasible objective if such workers are included in the planning processes and given the assistance they need to plan and keep informed. Evidence suggests that providing an equitable transition can reduce inequality in wealth and poverty.

The transition to a circular economy will, on the whole, benefit employment in the European Union (EU) because labor-intensive activities will replace those that are material-intensive as a result of circularity. Higher hierarchy waste operations have more potential for creating jobs due to the innately labor-intensive tasks required to increase product lifespan. For example, receiving items (including identification, initial quality checks, and sorting), storage and logistics (proper transit and handling, disassembly, storage of surplus merchandise), and repair of products and components are some examples of involved tasks in the reuse business (dismantling, cleaning, repair, functionality checks).

Reuse and repair are two labor-intensive activities that have the potential to provide a variety of occupations, especially for persons who are excluded from the labor market. RREUSE figures show that for every 1,000 tonnes of materials gathered for reuse, social enterprises engaged in reuse activities today generate, on average, 70 jobs. Additionally, between 45% and 80% of disadvantaged groups are employed by most such social companies. Therefore, the circular economy has the potential to drive an inclusive transition by offering job opportunities to low-skilled workers from sectors that are undergoing significant changes as well as other people at risk of social exclusion. Therefore, even though a circular economy will result in a major shift in the industry and lead to job losses in certain declining sectors entirely dependent on a linear take-make-waste economy, it will create new jobs in other sectors and contribute to protecting livelihoods.

To apply transition ideas to a circular economy, we need to develop policies and programs to assist people who run the danger of being left behind and to determine which nations, industries, communities, and workforces may be negatively impacted by the process. Additionally, it entails respecting their rights and involving relevant parties in decision-making processes. When preparing for and creating interventions to promote the circular economy transition, three types of justice - distribution, procedures, and recognition - need to be taken into account, raising significant issues and guiding ideals for a just circular economy transition:

  1. Distributional justice in the context of the circular economy is concerned with rights to resources, including waste, byproducts, and secondary materials, as well as the effects of the transition on employment. It is essential to consider how the existing linear system's expenses and benefits are dispersed, as well as how the transition's obligations will be shared. Which industries and nations are adding jobs, and which ones are losing them? And who is responsible for the transition's burdens?

  2. Central to procedural fairness are inclusion and exclusion in decision-making processes. To guarantee that social justice considerations are taken into account, it is crucial that various stakeholders, especially groups negatively impacted by the transition, are included in conversations at an early stage. Important considerations include who influences decisions, who makes decisions, and who is involved. Do all parties involved in the decision-making process have a seat at the table and is the process managed or inclusive? Do all parties involved possess the essential abilities and knowledge to contribute to the circular economy, share their ideas, and, if necessary, express their concerns?

  3. The last element covers a wide range of rights, such as the right to possess land and natural resources, the right to repair goods, and the right to consumer protection. How marginalized circular economy ideas and narratives, expertise, and values are recognized and incorporated into dominant narratives are essential concerns. How may participatory procedures be used to reconcile conflicting development interests? And which organizations can ensure that rights are recognized and upheld throughout the transitional periods?

Strong garbage picker organizations, for instance, guarantee a fair transition for their employees in several locations worldwide despite the lack of examples from the informal economy in just transition literature, particularly in the circular economy context. National garbage picker organizations support the shift of waste pickers out of dumpsites and into doorstep materials collection in Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, India, Brazil, and Kenya. India's garbage picker organizations offer doorstep composting services in several places. In Brazil, garbage picker cooperatives currently run a sizable portion of the formal recycling industry's collecting and sorting. In Canada, facilities that adhere to minimal waste diversion regulations hire waste pickers to sort recyclables. Waste pickers in France have won the right to sell used goods legally and in flea markets.

Socially inclusive systems can be maintained for longer in regions where workers have organized themselves rather than being taken on as employees by the private or governmental sectors. Countries with inclusive policies and legal frameworks, such as Brazil, Colombia, India, and Argentina, give waste pickers varied degrees of recognition and importance for labor in waste management. The waste management law of South Africa, for instance, mandates that municipalities create waste picker integration strategies. Fiji was the first Pacific nation to legally recognize rubbish pickers in July of 2022.

Waste pickers and other informal economy workers frequently get left out of climate change or circular economy debates and investments, despite positive examples worldwide. These discussions and investments typically lack any just transition plan and often further marginalize those already employed in precarious positions. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which extends the obligations of a product's manufacturer over its entire life cycle, including its take-back, recycling, and final disposal, has recently caused garbage pickers all over the world to become concerned over their occupations. They point to EPR's propensity to accelerate the privatization of the recycling sector and spark new competition for raw materials.

The corporate sector has more influence and a stronger voice in conversations about the circular economy. Still, employees are battling to have their voices heard. Over the past couple of years, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers involved hundreds of its members in creating their official position on EPR. The demands include that EPR is funded, but not implemented, by producers and that it assists the organization of workers in the informal economy. Participants in the Global Plastics Treaty process, which ought to include a just transition for workers, include representatives of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers.

Even with few resources and minor assistance, in most of the world, waste picker organizations are working hard to establish their just transition to a new circular economy. If we start now to develop inclusive materials management systems in our communities, the circular economy can bring about a just transformation. For these engagements to be successful, it is first necessary to map our systems. Next, workers from the informal economy and their organizations are invited to the table to develop the shared knowledge and connections needed.


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