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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.