The concept of a circular economy paints a vivid picture of sustainability and progress. A circular economy aims to transition us from a throwaway economy into waste elimination, resource circulation, and nature regeneration. In our current economy we take, make, and dispose, banking on a linear process of extracting materials from the earth, to transform them into products and throw them back as waste. Waste and pollution do not exist by accident, it is the outcome of our design models.
As the world strives towards a circular model of consumption, it’s imperative that we take into account rural communities. Remote regions around the world are currently dealing with serious problems in terms of waste management. They resort to harmful practices of throwing junk in open spaces, burning refuse in the air, dumping garbage into rivers, and adding to plastic pollution. The primary cause of these issues stems from inadequate or non-existent access to formal waste management systems. This is particularly true in low- and middle-income countries.
In rural communities across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, about 1.9 billion people lack access to regular waste collection schemes. This compounds the dismal states of water and sanitation infrastructure, and the struggles endured by these remote regions. Therefore, a linear economy prevails in rural regions as improper waste disposal practices continue to dominate. The 2023 Circularity gap report, (by Circle-economy) reveals a decline in global circularity, dropping from 9.1% in 2018 to 7.2%. This dip can be attributed to the startling surge in virgin material extraction and is intensifying the challenges faced by these marginalized populations.
The City—Rural Economic Cycle
The intricate dance between rural and urban areas indicates networks of interdependence. Rural areas provide the resources, nourishment, and raw materials that fuel urban life, while cities contribute knowledge, technology, and processed goods that enrich rural communities. The gross array of activities and development that takes place in the cities, makes us forget we share the same planet with rural regions. Opinions vary on the potential for cities to act as food production and mineral extraction hubs – and the benefits of doing so. Currently, urban systems alone – seem to be unable to fully meet the nutritional demand of the city population itself.
Most emissions indeed come from the cities, due to increased urbanization and industrialization. Which is why we feel rural areas are regenerative, because they harbor diverse flora and fauna, provide habitats for various species, enhance traditional agricultural practices, and promote biodiversity. However, we also must remember that these same regions are sites for extraction, exploration, and deforestation.
Underserved communities across nations have been overburdened with the negative environmental and health impacts caused by a linear economy. Many landfills, manufacturing, and processing facilities are located close to rural communities. All these beacons speak to the need to have a rural inclusive circular economy design.
In the words of Secretary U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, “we’re to look for ways to develop what is called a ‘circular economy,’ in which wealth and new opportunities and jobs are created in rural communities and stay in those rural communities”.
Harnessing Rural Regions into circular economy design.
So far, only a handful of projects in Germany and Europe have delved into the spatial aspects of the circular economy and its potential for rural development. Let’s take a look into how to take advantage of opportunities in rural areas for a circular economy.
Building Smart Villages
Smart villages have the potential for sustainable development and design. This concept broadly harnesses two streams of technical and engineering networks and the other rooted in ecology and living systems principles. Which can operate on a postmodern approach based on John Tillman Lyle’s theory of regenerative design. To foster the integration of natural systems and human activities in creating sustainable and regenerative communities. It promotes the deployment of biomimicry, locational patterns, living systems thinking, and restorative design.
Becoming smart villages is not the ultimate vision for rural areas; instead, it serves as a model, and pathway adopted to achieve a sustainable economy. The true purpose of a smart village lies in attaining sustainable development, encompassing improved living conditions for villagers, sustainable economic growth, and an enhanced ecological environment. In the village of Salihli in Turkey, a satellite farming project enhances circular economics using locally made precision farming software. The software offers an impressive 99% precision in detecting produce texture in satellite images. This is facilitating the detection of anomalies and aids in the classification of crops, assessment of their health, and monitoring of their development. This approach minimizes waste and maximizes agricultural productivity while optimizing water and fertilizer usage.
Development of scale secondary markets
The core concept of circular economy is to enhance resource efficiency and prevent valuable materials from going to waste. Improper disposal of excess inventory returned products, and end-of-life items lead to unnecessary waste and environmental harm. An effective system must exist to facilitate the proper handling of these products, and secondary markets are a crucial component of this system. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, gives insight into community-based social marketing, focusing on behavior change and community engagement to promote sustainable practices. He shows that rural regions can cooperate as a trading network that provides necessary scale and the ability to develop intricate products and share specialized skills.
One example is that of farmer’s markets and local food systems that can offer direct sales of agricultural produce, promoting locally grown, seasonal, and organic products. These markets have the potential to reduce long-distance transportation and minimize food waste, fostering sustainability in the rural circular economy. The market can further serve as an exchange system that enables people to share resources, equipment, and excessive/waste products. By connecting individuals and businesses in rural areas, these exchange platforms can facilitate the development of secondary markets. This approach allows for the efficient utilization of resources and the creation of mutually beneficial collaborations, rather than resorting to careless and unguided disposal.
In rural areas, where natural resources and ecosystems are often key assets, infrastructure serves as the design for the implementation of circular practices and strategies in rural regions. It encompasses a wide range of elements, including renewable energy generation, waste management and recycling, local food production, and water management.
In designing a rural circular economy, the infrastructure ecosystem optimizes resource utilization and creates a sustainable and closed-loop system. It includes recycling facilities that collect, sort and process recyclable materials, diverting them from landfills and supporting secondary markets for recycled resources. The composting systems can be used to convert organic waste into nutrient-rich compost, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and enhancing soil fertility. Also, upcycling workshops can promote the creative transformation of discarded materials into unique and marketable goods, fostering job creation and waste reduction. Dr. Reva Prakash, speaking at the FICCI CES 2022, stated “Circular Economy is Way beyond waste management. It is also about if the product has a recycling infrastructure, is sustainable, and also healthy for climate and ecosystem.”
Unlike bustling urban landscapes, rural areas possess a natural advantage when it comes to the ease of implementing circular practices. Rural communities shouldn’t be isolated as there is a bulk of opportunity for a circular economy. The regions and everyone within them, have a unique opportunity to spark a transformation towards more sustainable living. The circular economy, when designed thoughtfully and inclusively, has the potential to protect the environment, improve economics, and elevate social justice. Sustainability from its foundation requires social equity. How we extract, use, and dispose of our resources can affect already vulnerable communities disproportionately. It’s not just the materials that are wasted but embedded energy, resources, labour, and creativity are lost too.