The search for the ethical dimension in the circular economy

Authors: Aiste Bartkiene, Renata Bikauskaite, Diana Mincyte

At the end of July and the beginning of August, WP4 team from the Vilnius University participated in the summer school in Oslo, organized by NSU (Nordic Summer University). It is an independent academic institution organizing international and interdisciplinary events since 1950 where different scholar gathers together to discuss their current research and new emerging ideas. The format of the summer school is discussions and presentations in different study circles, which contain such themes as “Human technology futures: making art, doing theory, shaking things up”, “Hospitality and Solidarity”, “Futures, diversity, imaginations, and transformation in the Anthropocene”. We participated in the circle “Nordic environmental ethics” which focused on the different aspects of ethics of sustainability. As project CIRCLE is focused on sustainable and circular use of bioresources, we dedicated our presentation to the ethical dimension of circular economy and tried to look, at how the moral relationship with waste can be conceptualized. The main idea of a circular economy (CE) is how to transform waste into a valuable resource. However, we have noticed that not enough attention in CE discourse is given to cultural, social, political, and personal factors that surround waste practices and how humans are related to waste.

As a starting point for our exploration of the waste phenomenon and our ethical responsibilities towards it we took the perspective of Gay Hawkins “Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish”. According to Gay Hawkins guilt, moralism and despair pervade contemporary discourse on waste. She argues that existing representations of waste in the environmental discourse are built on fear about the end of nature: “our imaginations are overflowing with the horror of waste” (2005: 8). She seeks to find new ways of talking about the human relationships to waste that are built not only on such negative and politically unproductive emotions as guilt, despair, resentment but something more positive. We complement Hawkins’ idea that we need to generate new imaginaries of human-waste relations with the ethics of care approach which is one of the contemporary approaches in western moral philosophy that combines feminist, ethical, and political perspectives. In our presentation, we drew on Joan Tronto’s conceptualization of the ethics of care where care is understood as unfolding through five stages. Using this perspective we tried to locate the ethical dimension of the relationship with waste in CE. We have analyzed how different aspects of care such as attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness manifest in personal, industrial, and political waste management practices.

After the presentation, we had a discussion session where we considered if the ethics of care is not too narrow to embrace the whole macro level of the circular economy. We claimed that relationality, as the basis of this approach, can help to illuminate various levels of moral agency that constitute a variety of possible actors in waste management practices. The different levels of our responsibility towards waste and its management can be found on political, industrial and personal levels. Taking care of the waste can mean three things – at the policy level, it can mean not only creating guidelines but also supporting and promoting environmentally sustainable social, political, and economic infrastructures. Taking care of waste at the industrial level relates to adopting circular economy practices. Taking care at the personal level means reducing, recycling, redesigning, renewing, repairing, and recovering things that are seen as waste in people’s everyday life.

Photo: Candiix (