New Yorks’ full circle on waste

The consumer cultures of our urban lifestyles need a rethink for the future security of our cities. In the growing awareness that our earths finite resources are slowly running out of juice, pivoting away from current eco ‘fixes’ of recycling, which provide a loose Band-Aid on New Yorks’ waste problem, emerge ideas of the Circular Economy as a viable alternative to disrupt unsuitable linear economies. But perhaps the best lessons of how to value resources, can be found beyond the borders of the Big Apple. 

Economy, don’t be a square, go circular

The flaws of New Yorks’ throwaway culture unveiled by floating harbour debris and mounding landfill systems where the ‘away’ in throwaway, is a material myth. Recognising the need to go full circle on our consumptive habits, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation popularised the idea of the circular economy to:

“Look beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Implementing a regenerative model of consumption, the circular economy acts as a mirror process to the material metabolism of our cities to design out waste.

Simple circular economy diagram (source: Elizabeth Lyon)

New Yorks’ economic makeover

A focus on reshaping how we consume, has been embraced top to bottom; from policy makers to grassroot innovators. Welcomed by Mayor De Blasio, the New York Circular City Initiative partners policy makers, global corporations and consultants to help transition New York’s economy, into a circular, resilient model.

The circular Economic plan NYC source: NYCCI

Providing business incentives and private sector partnerships, the programme relies on the techno-innovations of the city’s commercial sectors as part of a ‘Green Covid recovery’ embracing fashion repair workshops, to biofuels and renewable energy.

Though as New Yorks economic landscape, is slowly reshaped by technological eco-perineurial spark, does the “choose well and buy less” philosophy of Vivienne Westwood, risk out-pricing the pockets of the minority class?   

Circular cities – looking beyond our boarders

The looking glass through we which examine these circular economies is typically framed the context western theory – focused on policy change and innovation as the solution. Typical ‘urban studies’ look through the pages of history textbooks and government policy, in order to explain or untangle trends, pointing the main finger of blame to capitalism (Heynen, 2016).

New 0waste store NYC

This is not to deny that capitalism has played a huge part in creating New York’s waste-addict society, but as Lawhon says, thought is geographical; my experiences as someone born and raised in London, wavers my investigation towards the citys’ politics as ‘trashing’ the waste system (Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver, 2013).

‘Wasting’ the potential of people

What this ignores, is both the complex relational and lived experiences of people within New York that ultimately determine the flows of materials and the potential for the creative smaller scale practises that can add to existing structural change.  

What political ecological studies of the global south appreciate, are the small, everyday activities, which act as a micro-protest to our linear systems – the practise circular economy nothing new (Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver, 2013).

A tea break, that defines an eco-economy

In Kolkata India, this is as simple as the everyday act of grabbing a cup of tea. Chai, a typical warm beverage is served in “bhar”, a hand-crafted clay cup. Soon after the sweet spiced tea is devoured, they are flung into nearby bins – where this trail of discarded cups are gathered by potters and re-churned into the earths’ soil, only to be crafted into new cups for tomorrows warm pick me up.

Kolkaas Bhar cups serving Chai (source: Karim Mostafa)

What Kolkatas’ tea break teaches us, is that you can have your chai, and drink it, without costing the earth – a circular model that New York’s plastic addicted coffee industry could learn from.  

A circular economy, needs people at its’ centre

Investigating the daily 9-5 of a new yorker, helps to unveil the material values of the big apple, as a starting point to where we need to create this negotiation between us, and the daily habits of a consumer-centric landscape (Mitchell, 2002).

One group challenging this in New York, is GrowNYC, a farming initiative aiming to rescue the unwanted peelings of the New Yorker lunch plate to fertilise the city’s urban farm initiatives.

GROW NYC urban farm (source: GROWNNYC/org)

Giving abandoned crusts a second life, GrowUps initiative bridges the intrinsic relationship between the urban, nature and people; recirculating what once was seen as waste, to a source of nutritionally filling the plates of the urban – armouring citizens with a more resilient and democratised food system, an essential in a city plagued by growing Food Poverty.

Ellen MacArthurs model of a circular food economy (source: EllenMacarthurFoundation)

Nestled between apartment blocks, I was lucky to stroll past a community led growing space (below) – as the Bronx residents nurtured the soils in their growing boxes, as did the vegetables and life that grew from them.

The future of a circular New York, starts with us.

to improve the socio-environmental health of the New York, we need to think like a New Yorker; the lived material experiences of the city both a source of waste itself, as well as an opportunity for decentralised participation in the circular economy (Heynen, 2016). As Timothy Mitchel mentions, change is both personal negotiation of our material values, alongside top-down approaches to policy change.

Much like ecological studies of cities in the global south, we have to recognise and embrace transformative power of localised action, only heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, to bring circularity to NYC. Responsibility sat between us, companies and the state – we all need to take a slice of ecological humble pie.

Word count: 822


Heynen, N., 2016. Urban political ecology II. Progress in Human Geography, 40(6), pp.839-845.

Lawhon, M., Ernstson, H. and Silver, J., 2013. Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE Through African Urbanism. Antipode, 46(2), pp.497-516.

Mitchell, T., 2002. Rule Of Experts. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

5 thoughts on “New Yorks’ full circle on waste

  1. What an intriguing post! Your arguments of re-orienting NYC’s economy (towards a circular one) posit thought-provoking questions, especially during this critical economic turn during COVID-19.

    I am also particularly interested in the idea that environmental initiatives should harness the everyday practices of community consumption – indeed, if done right, we can ‘have our chai(coffee?) and drink it too’! I recall in your previous post, that you have mentioned similar problems with New Yorker’s hectic lunch schedules – often opting for convenient takeaway salad boxes. Do you think there is an opportunity to create a ‘circular economy’ regarding New Yorker’s lunches? If not, what do you think might be some barriers (political, infrastructure, social practices), that might prevent their materialities –i.e. food waste, cutlery, plastic bags, takeaway containers – from ‘circulating locally’ in NYC?


    1. Hi,

      Good question – and not an easy one to answer! The issue I see in New York is centred in two issues – that being the corporate posts that govern food itself and political and inequities that underly NewYork. Though both difficult issues, an alteration to a policy which incentivises companies to monopoly, would certainly help – on a decentralised level, the power of urban food cooperatives need the political and financial backing and partnership from larger bodies -something that would accelerate localised impact!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi! I really liked your point on the importance of people-centric initiatives and capitalising on localised actions, rather than just focusing on technological innovations. I find this really relevant to Singapore’s waste recovery too – while infrastructural support for waste recovery is necessary and laudable, the potential of informal waste recovery and directing resources to the needy has yet to be tapped upon.

    On this point, you highlighted the promising GrowNYC farming initiative which I find really interesting. Apart from building the capacity of local food production to reduce the environmental footprint of food imports, this initiative also closes the metabolic loop of food waste. I’m curious if authorities have made any plans to collaborate with such ground-up initiatives to scale up their benefits?


    1. Hi! I think there is certainly a global pattern of ‘ground-up’ initiatives filling the gap of where the state has mismanaged a public service! Though for the financial sustainability of projects, I do agree that state support is ideal. New York thus far hasn’t shown a significant monetary injection into grassroots initiatives – through the new UN environment programme is working with the US state in order to help the city reach goal 11 of the STGs; resilient and sustainable cities.


  3. Hi there! This was a really enjoyable read that was rich with examples of how we can contribute towards a circular economy. In particular, the case with bhar really captured the idea of materials being reused as inputs for subsequent economic production. You suggest that a circular economy starts with us – indeed, we definitely need people to buy in the idea of a circular economy. What do you feel is needed to change mindsets and habits inculcated by a linear economy to those for a circular economy?


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