The problem with a circular economy in a poor country

The problem comes when we are in a country, an economy, where we are building that industrial civilization for the first time.

With cars the point is obvious; few in India or Bangladesh own a car, so to get to the point where we have as many cars as people – like in Europe or the US – we are going to need a lot more steel than we can have just by junking the old ones.

But this is true of everything. We can only build the new civilization – say Civilization 2.0 – out of the remains of the earlier one if we actually have that earlier one we are deconstructing.

To make high-rise buildings that do not fall over we need rebar – steel – inside the concrete. We can only get that from old buildings if we are tearing down old ones to make way for the new. Ripping down brick buildings just does not do it, there’s no steel there to recycle.

Or wiring up the country for telecoms and electricity. We can only do this from the old copper if there was already that copper out there in the previous wiring system.

If we are building out that grid for the first time we cannot be doing it in a circular manner.

This really does apply to everything as well.

20 thoughts on “The problem with a circular economy in a poor country”

  1. Bloke in North Dorset

    I get the point, but if you we’re starting from scratch you wouldn’t use copper for your telecoms infrastructure. Fibre for the core and middle mile and a mix of radio and fibre for the last mile.

  2. BiND

    You’d kinda still need to build those power stations that deliver electricity, and they – possibly – might need copper for the delivery. And they might need steel or summat for construction, even if they’re just a boat load of alternators driven when its windy by wind.

    Then somewhere you need to build optical fibre manufacturies. And vehicles to service things. And.

  3. That is one of their sources of scrap. Modi – yes. I know, India, but I used him as an example of what not to do – is complaining about suh imports of scrap, says ew must have a circular economy instead….

  4. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    Yeah, but strictly he’s right, inne? If you are importing raw materials in forms of scrap that isn’t circular.

    Maybe we should call it Juche ideology instead. Or is trade good and socialists who declare self sufficiency are only ever hamstrung by embargoes? I can never keep up with current correct thinking on this.

  5. If you have a cicular economy, don’t you just end up going round in circles? Don’t we usually talk of that as a thing not to be desired?

    I wonder if we couldn’t make things gradually better, if we tried.

  6. Well, my column – my column, note – in that Bangladeshi newspaper is supposed to be a gentle introduction to economics for those who don;t know any….

  7. Explanation. The economy is always, to some degree, circular. It always has been. Mate has a house in Essex, parts of which date back to the C15th. Those parts show the signs that the structural timbers were repurposed from a previous building. And those timbers weren’t new in that building. Judging by the shapes & fixing marks they came from a ship dismantled around the turn of the millennium. Sort of ship would have had oars & a dragon on the front. For most of history, iron was always recycled. As was much potterery. Crushed ceramics are useful materials used in amongst other thing, ceramics. Economic recycling is the norm.
    But everybody knew that if you sailed off & colonised America, you need to chop down trees to build houses. Shame there isn’t a way of recycling economists. Render them down for soap, I suppose. This is the economics end of environmentalism, isn’t it? You’d think knowing how an economy works would be a first requirement

  8. Are we so ingrained that a developing economy has got to have these specific materials? Could carbon fiber be substituted for steel? Could aluminium (at least for long haul) be substituted for copper? Could thorium be substituted for uranium? If your goal is to build a civilization, look at what you got & make it work.

  9. Then Bangladeshi’s are going to know this better than most other nations. It’s the sort of place they repurpose garbage.

  10. It’s that you actually have a target readership for it Tim. Although I’ve no doubt your have. There must be people in Bangladesh as divorced from reality as those in the West. Although one would’t think as many. You wouldn’t need to explain it to a Bangladeshi peasant.

  11. That you have to question substitution says a great deal, Paul in MO, USA. Enough to make a Greek hoplite throw down his bronze sword & pick up an iron one.

  12. Are we so ingrained that a developing economy has got to have these specific materials? Could carbon fiber be substituted for steel? Could aluminium (at least for long haul) be substituted for copper? Could thorium be substituted for uranium? If your goal is to build a civilization, look at what you got & make it work.

    It’s ingrained for a reason.
    These are the cheapest and best materials to use. We use copper for energy transmission because it’s very conductive. Aluminium is also conductive, but not as much as copper, so over long distances, losses mount.

    Carbon fibre is incredibly energy intensive to make (which is why it’s expensive). So it’s only really used where weight saving is a requirement or saves loads of money – aerospace for example.

    Unless some new technology comes along to revolutionise things (see fibre optic cables instead of phone wire), the old ways are going to be your best bet.

  13. @Paul in MO
    The problem with substitution is that rarely is the substitute equivalent to the original thing. If it was, people would already be using it. Usually the substitute is higher in cost and only is used when the cost of the original becomes the same.

    You use the example of steel versus carbon fiber. Yes, carbon fiber can replace steel in most uses. The problem is it costs an order of magnitude more for equivalent performance.

    Also,in order to use it, you have to grow an industrial base around. It is finicky stuff to lay up, with complex, nasty chemicals. It requires a completely different technology to join and repair.

    This is a steep learning curve for a poor country.

  14. Locally there was a short period when builders used aluminium wiring for houses, now the first question asked when buying a house from that time or especially when insuring it is what wiring does it have. Finding it’s copper leads to a huge sigh of relief all round, its considered worse than finding asbestos, though at least the asbestos would help with the overheating issues.
    So substitutes aren’t always a good idea even if available.

  15. Bloke in North Dorset

    BT (well the old GPO) used Aluminium when Milton Keynes was built. No problem for voice so a good substitute at the time. Unfortunately absolutely hopeless for digital. That’s why all the operators used MK to trial wireless broadband services and launched there.

  16. Could carbon fiber be substituted for steel?
    Sure. Where did the recycled fibre come from?

    Could aluminium (at least for long haul) be substituted for copper?
    Sure. Where did the recycled aluminum come from?

    Could thorium be substituted for uranium?

    Sure. Where did the recycled Thorium come from?
    The point is that none of these suggestions are circular, Paul – even if they would be the appropriate target technology if we were starting from a blank piece of paper.

  17. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    I am very close to the Grand Unified Theory of Worstall’s fine establishment.

    In 15 minutes, Ottokring will know everything, and BiS will know everyone.

  18. The circular economy is stupid for two related reasons: it cannot grow in any area as that requires more of something (as mentioned) and it also cannot shrink in any area as that would leave something which is neither re-used nor recycled. This means a circular economy is a form of stasis – one which spins on the spot and never goes anywhere. You can’t replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs as they use different elements in their manufacture. And if you did, you then couldn’t replace CFLs with LEDs for the same reason. You couldn’t replace coal-fired power stations with wind farms as that would need disposal of some materials and creation of different ones.

    Of course, if your political view is that we are only just around the corner from perfection, then maybe it makes sense. Once we change to the ultimate, perfect society no further change is needed.

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