Myths of the Circular Economy

By Gay Hawkins, David Boarder Giles, Catherine Phillips and Alex Zahara

We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. To help defamiliarize and demythologize aspects of waste, Discard Studies hosts a series of interviews with researchers who are working to show some of the more invisible, less well-known aspects of waste and wasting, collectively called demythologizing waste. In part 2 of our interview with Australian discard studies researchers, Gay Hawkins (Western Sydney University), David Boarder Giles (Deakin University), and Catherine Phillips (University of Melbourne) talk to Alex Zahara (Memorial University) about the greatest myths they encounter in their research. All of them spoke about an increasingly popular economic and waste management strategy known as the ‘circular economy’.

Consumer practices vs systemic change

Alex Zahara: What are some of the biggest myths that you come up against in your research on waste?

Gay Hawkins: When you’re working in this area, you are working at the interface between interesting conceptual intellectual work and applied engaged research that’s tackling a global crisis. So you often get asked ‘’what can I do?’ or ‘how should we tackle the waste crisis?’. And I guess I get really sick of the focus on consumer practices. I think that’s the biggest myth in discussions around waste. That changes in consumer practices will make a difference. I understand the ethical impulse for that, in terms of living an ethical life and that being a way of direct and immediate engagement with the micro politics of how you live. But the real issues are so much bigger than consumers. They are, as discard studies has pointed out, about industrial waste, about the structural imperative to create waste in all economies. Those issues are just not talked about enough. That’s why discard studies is so exciting because it puts externalities at the center of the picture and says ‘well what if we started with the waste?’ And from there, it maps out all of the ways in which particular externalities become an inevitable process in this current economic arrangement. How would you disrupt that? That’s the important thing.

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Screen shot from ‘Closing the Loop’ guide for consumers by European Commission, 07/11/2019

Alex: How do you feel like you’ve gone about disrupting that myth through your research projects?

Gay: Well, ironically, even though I say consumers shouldn’t be seen as the primary focus of change, Ethics of Waste was about everyday ethics. But it was trying to shift the focus to actual material practices and how wasting makes us human in certain ways. In the last few years, I have become more interested in the organization of economies, and in the whole science and technology studies (STS) approach to economization. I have been really focused on how you design economies that are ethical and ecological, and you know, non-wasting. And the whole community economies framework and Science and Technology Studies approaches to enacting economies, I think that’s where the really interesting analyses can be done– looking at how you create different economic processes that are anti-waste. You can see that happening everywhere in zero-waste initiatives. I’m doing a big study now on the unpackaged supermarket movement. So ‘decontainer-izing’ stock– getting stuff out of containers– and how those economies are designed. Because if you think about the package, it’s disposable. It’s waste before you even touch it. So if you want to get rid of the package, the package is enacting a whole lot of really important functions and responsibilities. If get rid of them, who’s going to take on those material responsibilities? How are you going to redistribute them? A lot of time, those responsibilities get redistributed to the shop consumer who, if they’re in a bulk food store, have to pack their own goods or bring their own container or whatever. But a lot of the responsibility can be re-distributed in other ways; it can be redistributed around the design of the supermarket, around logistics, around eliminating unnecessary wasteful materials. So what would happen if you pulled out the most potent waste-making element out of an economic arrangement–  how would things have to be rearranged to compensate for it? So that’s what’s most interesting, I think. Looking at economic processes. There’s a huge movement in the EU now around the circular economy. There’s huge moves now to look at redesigning economies to reduce waste, and there’s huge moves towards the sharing economy. There are all these new economic formations that are about not possessing stuff, about not having unnecessary materials, about reuse, recycling. All of those elements shouldn’t be seen as the externality of an economic crisis. They should be seen as built into it.

‘The market’ is the system

David Boarder Giles: I think the circular economy is probably one of the biggest myths we run into. Just in terms of dealing with policy decisions, there’s this kind of a romantic thought that we’ll just recover materials and then everything will be fine. The circular economy is ‘well you know, we’ll just take this material from point A and move it to point B, and that solves the problem with it’. The other related myth that I run into all the time, and most of us do constantly, is the myth of the efficient market. For example, I’m moving from talking about wasted food and food insecurity to thinking about vacant housing and housing insecurity, which is in some ways a parallel phenomenon. In a lot of the cities where I’ve worked, there are empty houses, yet there are also many people sleeping on the streets. So there’s this built-in manufactured scarcity that produces insecurity and abjection. And what are some people’s answer to it? Build more housing. And with food insecurity? Well, just grow more food. Rather than redistribute food or housing, there’s a push to rely on the market to do this kind of magic hocus pocus that the market is imagined to do. So in Seattle, which is one of the places I’ve done a lot of work, they’re having this ongoing argument about rent control. And the argument against rent control is always that it’ll upset the market, and that ‘we have to trust the market’.

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The circular economy aims to ‘close the loop’ by incorporating wastes within existing markets. Photo by: Julie Verlinden, CC BY-SA 2.0

In terms of food systems, the larger nonprofit development world is all about getting people into the market and then the market will take care of them. There’s this idea that the market is the key for getting people out of poverty. Or that all we have to do is ‘plug this farmer into the market’, or make them more efficient producers with this bit of technology, which just happens to make money for Monsanto and, ta da! Food security solved, poverty solved. Even in thinking of food waste, dumpsters, and food security, the answer that people often give stems from this tiny circular economic imaginary of well, ‘we’ll save it from the dumpster, we’ll send it to a soup kitchen, and it all will be well’. Or ‘we’ll save it from a dumpster, and we’ll send it to an anaerobic waste-to-energy plant, make energy out of it, and all will be well’. I believe in messy scholarship that talks back to that.

More-than-technical solutions

Catherine Phillips: The circular economy is certainly one of the myths that I was thinking about as well. The idea that if you recover materials, that’s the solution– to integrate existing waste streams into current economic growth practices. I think that idea ties into some of the thinking that purity is achievable or even desirable, or that particular materials or objects are inherently good or bad, rather than looking at the systems that made them. One of the myths that is reflected in what David’s been saying and that I’ve definitely encountered in my work is the sense that technical solutions will fix it all, which relates to the idea that circular economies will fix it all. For the most part, it’s this technical, instrumental thinking that decides what the waste problem is. I was reading Sarah Martin’s (Memorial University) recent piece where she was talking about the circular recovery of grains. That piece is a great example of showing how even though you’re doing circular recovery, you’re not actually dealing with some of the ethical, economic, or political causes of waste issues in ways that are useful to people. As one example, in thinking about my work on plastics and food systems, one alternative food initiative I spoke with does all these things to minimize plastics in their operation. They consider it a material and an ethical aspect of their work. One of the things that we spoke about was the importance of including, even shifting, people’s tastes when coming up with ways to reduce waste. So how to allow for, say, dairy consumption in a way that isn’t getting your milk in a plastic jug every day? Maybe it’s about shifting to hard cheese that can be transported without plastic? Do people like that? Could it be encouraged somehow? Would this work? People’s tastes become important. So these are some of the weird things you don’t necessarily think about if you’re caught up in the circulation of resources, or in developing technical solutions. 

I also think there’s a whole bunch of other things that we don’t talk about when discussing the circular economy. Like skills. So Chantel Carr (University of Wollongong)’’s work on skill is really fascinating. She doesn’t look at it through a discard studies lens but her work absolutely has something to say to discard studies about wasted training, wasted labor, ignored skills of recovery and repair. Re-circulating materials through maintenance and repair work is not just about preventing materials from going to the landfill but involves people’s everyday lives. It requires people feeling fulfilled and being part of communities and sharing knowledge in ways that are not just ‘useful’ or ‘productive’. 

museum worker

The work of recovery requires skilled and meaningful labour. Photo: Max Liboiron, CC BY-ND

David: You’re making me think about the project we’re doing together, which is to think about the labours that make waste in the first place. Often that involves separating people from wastes. So that might be locking the dumpster. That might be kicking people out of a park if they’re trying to share food. So here, recirculating becomes waste. Making it illegal to share food in the park is not just keeping people out of the park. It’s about keeping this second very non-market space from forming.

Catherine: Yes. And it’s not just kicking people out of the park, it could involve investing in plants that might actually support a bigger presence of non-market economies. For example, the city getting rid of fruit trees because it creates mess and therefore liability. That is a perfect example. We can open the park, as you suggest, but does it have the infrastructure to support the things people actually want to do? Not to even mention the ecologies involved. That’s another step in the system. So for me, changing systems is about relationships, absolutely, but it’s also about things like sensory aspects and skill-based work. It’s about the things that we do and feel in our everyday lives. It’s about the taken for granted, value-laden decisions that are accepted as norms while others are termed ‘political’. It requires disrupting some of that.


Gay Hawkins is a Professor at Western Sydney University. Professor Hawkins’ work on environments, natures, and cultures has been internationally recognised and important to discard studies. In 2005 she published The Ethics of Waste, a book that examined the materiality of waste and the ways in which it makes ethical claims on us. Between 2008 and 2013 Professor Hawkins worked on a major project investigating the rapid growth of bottled water markets over the last thirty years. This research is published in the book  Plastic water: the social and material life of bottled water, co-authored with Emily Potter and Kane Race and published by The MIT Press in 2015. She has also done a project called ‘The Skin of Commerce’ which explored the history and politics of the relationships between plastic and food post WWII.

David Boarder Giles writes about waste, cities, and social movements. His current projects all explore the ways in which discarded surpluses—of people, places, and things—are circulated in “global” cities. These interests draw him into a range of spaces and problems, from the twin crises of food insecurity and food waste that plague so many cities, to the alternative economies established by dumpster divers and other urban scroungers, from the spectacular “world-class” image to which many major cities aspire to the prejudice and exclusion that shape public space and criminalise the existence of the homeless who sleep on their streets. His first book, “A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People”: World Class Waste and the Forbidden Gifts of the Global City, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.

Catherine Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. She combines qualitative research on everyday practices with social theory to explore human-environment relations, and their implications for governance. Her recent work focuses on agrifood, discard, and urban natures. Catherine lives and works in Wurundgeri Country.  

Alex Zahara is a PhD Candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His current research examines controversies of settler colonialism and wildfire management near his home community in Treaty 6 Territory, northern Saskatchewan.  His work on waste has been published in the collections Anthropocene Feminism (University of Minnesota Press), Inevitably Toxic (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Environmental Humanities.

This interview is part 2 of a previous Discard Studies post, ‘Placing discard studies in Australia‘.

Cite as: Hawkins, Gay., Giles, David Boarder., Phillips, Catherine., & Zahara, Alex. (2019). ‘Myths of the Circular Economy.’ Discard Studies. 18 November.