How the circular economy is helping China achieve its quest for ‘ecological civilisation’

Perspectives from a pioneer in Anhui province

By Vigil Yangjinqi Yu, Research Analyst, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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Picture by Sandeep Swarnkar

May of 2000, Kunsen Ji arrived in the city of Chizhou, in China’s Anhui province, to investigate progress that was being made towards the establishment of a ‘national ecological and economic demonstration’ zone. Just two years into his post as Deputy Director of the Standing Committee of the Anhui Province People’s Congress — a post he would hold until 2006 — Ji had begun exploring the concept of circular economy and what positive impacts it could have on the Anhui region.

During his eight days in Chizhou, Ji says that what touched him the most were the “many rural people and farmers talking about an ecological economy, sustainable development, organic agriculture, and organic food. All these new concepts were like fresh air diffusing in Chizhou.” This experience inspired Ji to establish an ecological environment strategy to stimulate economic progress and provide social benefits in the region.

Ji explains, “A healthy natural environment is the core of the development of an ‘ecological province’ (a term used to describe an area chosen to implement the Chinese government goal of ‘ecological civilisation’, which is the end goal of social and environmental reform towards sustainability). Only through circular economy principles, fundamentally changing the economic model, and protecting and regenerating the natural environment, can the construction of an ecological province be successful.”

Since his time in office, Ji has become a well-respected circular economy pioneer in China and is currently the Dean of the Circular Economy Institute of Anhui Province. He has spent more than two decades working to implement circular economy principles on the ground in rural areas of China.

Here, Ji shares his experiences and insights.

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Picture by Patrick Baum

Adhering to the Road of Circular Economy Transformation

By Kunsen Ji

The circular economy represents the trend of the times. It changes the development model and protects the earth by dealing with the severe constraints on resources and the environmental damage caused by the current economic model. Ultimately, a circular economy contributes to the harmonious coexistence between humans and nature, creating a virtuous circle of sustainable development.

I have been researching and promoting the circular economy for more than 20 years, since May 1998. In the beginning, we pursued a circular economy to resolve two main conflicts: 1) the conflict between economic development and environmental pollution; 2) the conflict between finite resources and endless demands from human society.

In June 2003, I consulted a colleague who had spent a year studying the circular economy in Germany, asking: how can Anhui Province develop a circular economy? His answer was: “starting with waste disposal”. But as important as it is to make good use of waste, our first priority needs to be economic development, otherwise people will not support it.

Economic development is the absolute imperative. As Deng Xiaoping said, “development is the key we depend on to solving problems for China”. We should have a long-term view on the overall system, not only to consider the interests of our present generation or government, but to try to avoid intentional or unintentional harm to the interests of future generations. Therefore, we need balanced development. Only when the development of economy, society, and ecology are coordinated, can we succeed in both societal materialistic wellbeing and cultural-ethical progress. The circular economy is an advanced economic model that reduces resource consumption and environmental pollution, while providing strong economic benefits and employment.

Building an ecological province using the principles of the circular economy

We should keep multiple major systems in mind when constructing the ecological province. The first one is the eco-economic system. The circular economy is essentially an ecological economy, and vigorously developing a circular economy is a breakthrough in transforming the mode of economic growth and building an ecological province. Then there is the resource system. The key to developing a circular economy is to make full use of the principle of reduction and build a society that keeps resources in use. We should use as little resource and energy as possible to create the same or more wealth as we made using much greater resource and energy levels. Greatly improving resource productivity would be one approach for it.

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Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

The more obvious one is the environmental system. The development of the circular economy benefits environmental protection, i.e. minimising waste discharge, preventing pollution, and striving towards zero waste.

I also consider the circular economy to be the core idea for the development of eco-towns, coordinating construction systems in implementing the rural regeneration strategy. It requires the use of ecological principles to guide the economic activities of human society. Guiding the construction of ecological civilisation with the idea of circular economy is essential to sustain and keep a healthy and ecological region.

Putting principles into context: circular industrial parks in China

The Kalundborg Industrial Park in Denmark, famous for its use of industrial symbiosis, has only a dozen enterprises, while a Chinese comprehensive development zone usually has at least several hundred, which makes it very complicated to organise.

After years of investigation and contemplation, I put forward a new idea in July 2005. That is, we break the zone into parts and then implement a circular economy one part at a time and gradually expand to the whole zone.

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Photo by Charlize Birdsinger on Unsplash

The specific approaches are as follows. It’s fundamental to vigorously promote a circular economy to every enterprise in a zone and ask them to set up the goal to save energy, reduce resource consumption, control pollution at low cost, increase employment and enhance efficiency in developing a circular economy. Then to identify several similar enterprises or those that can be connected into a circular chain for circular utilisation of energy, logistics and waste flows. If it’s possible to connect several small flows and form a systemic circulation, do so, or it might be necessary to find other projects to complete the flow.

Circular economy principles in agriculture

If we want to apply a circular economy in agriculture, we should develop ecological circular agriculture and vigorously work towards safe food. We should utilise a systems perspective where the development of safe and high quality agricultural products should not only stay in villages and towns, but must be promoted to the county. Since it’s such an inter-connected complex system, many interacting mechanisms need to be considered: quality standard, inspection and testing, quality certification, science and technology, market information, supporting service, distribution and sales, and legal supervision.

In the end, we aim to achieve three goals. The first is to provide safe and high-quality agricultural products in line with the standards to safeguard the rights and interests of consumers; the second is to implement high-quality and fair-price policy to safeguard the rights and interests of producers; the third is to help protect and regenerate the agricultural ecological environment and ensure the production of safe and high-quality food to develop continuously and healthily.

The social aspect of applying circular economy to agriculture

It’s important to integrate circular economy principles with poverty alleviation, so that we can achieve sustainable development. Funan County of Anhui Province is one of the poorest counties and the only ‘Agriculture and Forestry circular economy pilot county’ in China. It effectively adopted the circular economy in its development and has given 260,000 people jobs — that’s 73% of the total local workforce; and 200,000 of them live below the poverty line.

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Photo by Hari Krishnan on Unsplash

What happened is that the county put great effort in producing high quality produce and healthy husbandry. Chilli production alone created 16,500 jobs. By developing the ‘Multifunctional circular agriculture’ model, restructuring plant arrangement, better utilising space between trees, and eco-tourism, more than 3,880 households (around 10,700 people) were lifted out of poverty by the end of 2015.

It’s very important to choose what to cultivate according to the local natural environment. For example, the county is prone to floods, therefore aspens and willows were planted instead of grains. Planting trees, grass and economic crops according to the soil, landscape and watershed, raising sheep on the grassland and ducks, fish and pearls in the ponds brought profits to the village and improved the local environment. Currently, there are 80 villages, with 100,000 people forming 100 companies, generating 3.1 billion CNY annual revenue. Now, the process has evolved to using ratten, bamboo, straw, scrap metal, and plastic.

My little grandson, a second-grader of a primary school at the age of six years and nine months, said that the first Chinese character in “circular” is made of a “two-person” on the left and a “shield” on the right; the second character is more meaningful for it means something in a “circle”. When these two characters are put together, they mean “people joining in a circle to protect”. Then he added, “Circular economy is an economic model that protects the environment”. Everyone in the room was impressed, which is to show that circular economy is not mysterious, and the idea should be brought to people at a very young age.

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Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

Circular economy is one that protects the environment. To go beyond recycling, it’s more important to actively protect natural resources while growing the economy.

We should transition from “Rely on the mountain, consume the mountain; rely on the water, consume the water” to “Rely on the mountain, nourish the mountain; rely on the water, replenish the water; rely on the land, nurture the land”.

Challenges on the road to the circular economy

In December of 2004, I went to attend the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in Beijing, a colleague said to me that circular economy was developed from Germany, Japan and other developed countries. Developing circular economy in eastern China provinces and municipalities may also be possible (the more affluent region), but it will not be easy for you to implement it in Central China’s Anhui Province.

Afterwards, I thought that the purpose of introducing circular economy is to solve the conflict between economic development and environmental protection, and the conflict between limited resources and unlimited demand. These challenges exist not only in developed countries, but also in developing countries, not only in the eastern coastal areas, but also in the central and western regions of China. Different regions are at the same starting line.

Excerpts translated and adapted from a longer version of Adhering to the Road of Circular Economy Transformation by Kunsen Ji.

Circulate

Features and thought-leadership on the circular economy

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Written by

We work to build a framework for a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. Follow @circulatenews for latest insights.

Circulate

Circulate

Features and thought-leadership on the circular economy

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Written by

We work to build a framework for a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. Follow @circulatenews for latest insights.

Circulate

Circulate

Features and thought-leadership on the circular economy

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