Development program encourages circular economies


A merely sustainable economy will not be good enough to sustain the planet even in its current condition, two officials from Pitt sustainability groups told participants in a new Faculty and Staff Development Program — “Sustainability: Circular, Regenerative, and Just Economies” on June 9.

To start Pitt staffers on the road to more sustainable purchasing, the presenters explained that:

  • A circular economy would mean new products that are no longer made from extracting more resources from the earth.

  • A regenerative economy would mean making products that can be repaired more easily and also fully recycled into the same materials or even a new version of the same product.

Chris Gassman, the center’s associate director, pointed out that too many of our economies are linear today: We use new raw materials, make a new product, and even if it is recycled a time or two it ends up in a landfill.

In contrast, products made in circular economies never end up as waste. This sort of economy also keeps biological things in the biological cycle and industrial things in the industrial cycle, avoiding hybrid products where the raw materials cannot be re-separated easily (such as a shirt mixing cotton and synthetic fibers).

If “you’re trying to move your purchasing decision toward a more circular decision (and) work toward an economy where you are not bringing in any new raw material and not generating any new waste,” he asked, “how do we actually start getting there? How do you we use the thing multiple times and multiple uses? … How do you find a way to get it refurbished?

“There is only so many resources that we have in the planet,” he continued. “What are the ways in which we are over-shooting the means by which the planet has to regenerate itself?” How do we get to the place where no people in other countries are being left behind, in terms of improving their daily lives, and yet “the resources of the Earth not being overstrained?”

The first step is to examine where we get our goods — the supply chain of raw materials acquired by the companies who manufacture and sell our office supplies (and used in the items we buy for ourselves and our homes, for that matter).

Jennifer Barnes, supplier diversity and sustainability coordinator in Purchasing Services, suggested we ask: How are the raw materials acquired? How is the material processed by people — is there any exploitation involved? How is it distributed?

At the moment, we may not be able to know where every component of our cell phones are mined or assembled, for instance, but “we should at least hold (manufacturers) responsible for the larger supply chain,” Barnes said.

Circular economies are already being adopted by institutions of higher education, she pointed out. Barnard College in New York City has already pledged to develop a circular campus. The University of Southern California is eliminating the single-use plastic beverage bottle. And Wageningen University in the Netherlands holds suppliers and purchases more accountable to achieve circularity through their contracts, making sellers, rather than the college, responsible for their products’ upcycling (reusing of the materials for a similar product).

A collaboration led by the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and Swanson School of Engineering last year created a new Covestro Circular Economy Program, a graduate program for the study of circular economies here, “so we’re really spearheading this in the United States,” Barnes said. The campus has instituted new ways to reuse surplus property and recycle printer cartridges and lab gloves in recent years, making the latter into material for new scientific tools.

“We all attack and address this sustainability in different ways in different disciplines,” she added, and thus our approaches to reaching a circular economy will be different in disparate areas of Pitt.

Gassman noted that we can’t just depend on the labels stuck onto products to determine whether a product is even sustainable. Some companies practice greenwashing — pretending to be sustainable — and the label of “ ‘natural’ means nothing,” he said. “Follow the money — who’s paying for the message” when you see a label, he warned.

Other labels can be similarly misleading, such as “bio friendly,” “100% organic,” “Bio,” “100% sustainable,” “Eco friendly” and “Earth friendly.” Trustworthy labels include the official labels for “USDA Organic,” “Fair Trade Certified,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” “Cruelty Free International,” “Certified B Corporation Fair Trade,” “Green Seal,” and “Cruelty Free.”

Humanity has a “history of commodification of waste,” he said, and recycling is not a new idea or practice. However, the pair of presenters emphasized: There is no waste in nature. Waste is a human invention.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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