Circular Economy, An Underrated Model for Community Growth


What the world economy would be like after the COVID-19 pandemic is a question many experts are still trying to figure out. Can a current alternative model provide some answers? A look into a circular economy social enterprise in Puerto Rico. 

Special Report by Cristina Ramírez Doval

Circular economy has been practiced in big and small countries around the world, including the Netherlands and Puerto Rico, since the late 1970s. 

Circular economy accomplishes a set of goals: preserve our natural resources, boost local activity, and reduce production costs.

Unfortunately, in countries such as the United States, it struggles to become known due to lack of education along with the initial costs of implementation.

Agricultural workers, however, found this to be the perfect solution to most of their problems and consider it to be applicable to many disciplines as well.

According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for the past fifty years, about seven schools of thought shaped what we now know as circular economy.

Cradle to cradle, performance economy, biomimicry, industrial ecology, natural capitalism, blue economy and regenerative design are some of the concepts that scholars presented as healthy principles.

They are meant to shape a successful business equation in which a product can be useful in any stage.

Circular economy derives from all of these, while industries under a circular business model can inherit the traits of just one of the aforementioned concepts. 

“There are multiple definitions for circular economy,” Environmental and Agricultural Economics Expert, Héctor Tavárez said. 

“It is a system that proposes reducing consumption, reusing materials and recycling products when they have run out of use. It is a type of economy that imitates nature, where no residues exist since everything is decomposed and serves as an input into  the circle of life,” he added.

The University of Puerto Rico Professor pointed out there is a substantial difference between a circular economy and a linear economy, since the latter represents capitalism. For the most part, consumers have relied upon the linear model, a more mainstream archetype.

“The linear model is known for three steps: production, use, and disposal… and this contributes to the degradation of the environment due to the accumulation of waste, which in turn, leads to social conflict,” he said. 

José Miguel Pacheco, a small business owner in San Juan, recognizes the advantages a circular model can bring, especially in an island with great social, political and economic unrest such as Puerto Rico. 

“In Puerto Rico, there is a need for creating good soil in order to reach food sovereignty, because the moment a ship [with imported goods] sinks, we won’t have any food”, the CEO of local produce company TAIS said.

Both he and professor Tavárez agree on the fact that cutting the costs of import can greatly benefit the Island, not only would this reduce spending, but it would also allow the cash flow to remain local. 

As part of a 2017 major study with The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mckinsey & Company found that a total of 28 industries in Europe could benefit from the circular business model. Some examples are clothing, retail, personal and household goods, food and beverage, renewable energy, and waste management. 

It is estimated this approach «could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent by 2030, generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits”, the report reads.

Circular economy seems to work on many fields beyond what has already been shown in agriculture, and it allows small businesses to thrive. Aside from import and production costs, eco friendly products in today’s markets are a big hit among consumers.

“It is a well known fact consumers are willing to pay more for products that stand out”, professor Tavárez said in regards to eco friendly brands, and added, “Small businesses are usually more vulnerable to production costs and natural risks, and so by decreasing the costs, they become stable”. 

Such dynamics are thus proven to not only boost local economies, but also help the environment. 

If a circular economy is a prosperous model, then why is it that countries that heavily rely on imports, such as Puerto Rico, have a hard time switching their modus operandi?

Aside from the difficulties of changing the residents’ perspectives, there are a series of economic constraints. 

The Island’s only means of disposal are landfills and they are under the control of municipalities, according to a document published by the Puerto Rico Solid Waste Authority. There are a total of 24 operating landfills.

“Municipalities are not required to allocate a percentage of the tipping fee towards compliance, closure or post-closure costs”, explains the author.

There are 78 municipalities, hence, 78 mayors who control public opinion about said issues.

The power these local government figures hold in Puerto Rico explains why switching to a circular economy takes so much work.

Nevertheless, companies such as TAIS continue to work in favor of leaving behind traditional capitalist practices such as the linear model.

Another reason that motivates TAIS to fight for a new order of economic practices is, in fact, the local economy.

Puerto Rico is not exempt to high unemployment rates; only 8 U.S. states ranked higher than the Caribbean nation in February 2020. Although every state presented their March numbers, the Island’s is still to be announced, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

In a country where the female population is 155,447 higher than the males, it is very clear that this affects the former more than the latter. 

For this reason, Cameron Briggs Ramos, a former Anthropology student who works alongside Pacheco in TAIS, sheds more light on the matter of gender inequality in Puerto Rico’s job market.

As the company’s community outreach coordinator, she is in charge of multiple tasks. Being in charge of customer service while delivering heavy equipment at the same time, she has noticed particular reactions from her clients. “There is a stereotype of what the Puerto Rican agricultural worker looks like, he’s usually a middle aged man or a young adult with a beard”, she commented, “Growing up with that image, people tend to forget that women can also do heavy lifting, and all because they have a certain picture engraved in their minds, the typical jibarito (Puerto Rican country folk)”. 

The University of Florida graduate pointed out it is double the shock to most to see her working in Agriculture, due to 90% of the Island produce being imported.

“It has to do with Puerto Rican culture as a whole, if they don’t expect young people to be interested in Agriculture, much less would they expect a female agro worker”, Briggs Ramos said.

A way of thinking that shows a negative impact to female islanders who fight to make a living in male dominated fields such as Agriculture. 

Briggs Ramos thinks that novelty businesses such as TAIS not only bring new economic outlooks to the table, but also new perspectives regarding gender roles in the workplace.

However, she does believe that, as circular economy becomes more popular, this can help empower women.

TAIS has an expansion plan in the works, and part of that plan is to reach more communities and encourage them to have their own urban orchards.

If the model is implemented correctly, and revenues remain local, this in turn will result in a rise in employment not only for more women but also for prosperity in Agriculture.

“When a woman is immersed in the growing of crops, she is immersed in something that is good for both body and mind”, she assured, “This knowledge dates back to many generations, the knowledge of working in a field is in our DNA”.

Briggs Ramos firmly believes that if more job opportunities are presented to Puerto Rican women, they will become less dependent of their partners.

Many news portals have shown alarming rises in domestic violence since stay at home orders were implemented in March due to COVID-19. The increase in numbers highlighted Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Puerto Rico.

There are endless ways to establish a healthy circular economy model, no matter the country or region.

Many case studies in continents as big as Europe and countries as small as Puerto Rico have shown great benefits.

The need to care for the environment and to preserve natural resources urges responsible citizens to take a closer look at new dynamics.

Financially and socially speaking, it is also a great practice, which is why it should be considered in any government policy.

It is worth trying it for the long term and for future generations.

You can learn more about TAIS here:

Photo Credit: TAIS

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