Things I Learned at Work This Week: Environmental Buzzwords

Current Location: Geneva, Switzerland

This week was a pretty amazing first week of work. This summer I’m working at the UN Environmental Programme in the Chemicals & Waste branch. UNEP is housed in the UN Office at Geneva. However, there are two locations in Geneva. Le Palais de Naciones is the huge, beautiful, and famous UN office. UNEP is in the other location: The International Environment House. It is a much smaller office (although it is still quite large for an office building) that is home to environmental focused international organizations, including UNEP, UN Habitat, World Food Program (WFP), UN Development Programme (UNDP), and more. I did get to stop by Le Palais on day two to pick up my badge which was pretty awesome.

Not my office

Working at UNEP is extremely fast paced. The last few jobs I have had were pretty slow on the first few days. It makes sense–supervisors need time to figure out what they need help with, what your strengths are, and ultimately, how much they trust you. My first few days were not like that. Day one was a little slow; I basically spent the whole day reading. But by day two I was thrown into action: I sat in on one branch meeting, participated in another, wrote a thank you letter to the EU for a $10,000,000 donation, drafted a progress report for the government of Germany, and attended a picnic celebrating the 50th ratification of the Minamata Convention. It was a very weird day that turned out to be a very typical day.


As a result of working at UNEP, I’ve started to accumulate a list of buzzwords and acronyms. I learned so many acronyms I had to make myself a cheat sheet: MEA, BRS, PoW (not prisoner of war), CEITs, SIDS…the list goes on and on. Here is a really interesting term that I learned about in my first couple of days:


Circularity (also referred to as a circular economy) is basically recycling at a systemic level. Industry uses waste and by-products to source inputs which reduces the demand for new products, decreases the amount of waste created, and also diminishes the hazards that waste can pose to human and environmental health. I learned this term from Ligia Noronha, the director of the Economy Division at UNEP (my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss’ ….). She had just returned from the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki and gave us a briefing on her remarks.

Ligia was one of the closing speakers; you can watch her presentation here. The purpose of the forum was to discuss the potential benefits of circularity and concrete ways to encourage and implement circularity. What I really appreciated about Ligia’s remarks was that she also discussed some of the potential externalities associated with circular economies. If any of you heard my graduation speech at the economics ceremony, I talked about how thinking critically and compassionately is a skill and sign of intelligence. This, in my opinion, is exactly that.

Circularity sounds great, in theory. Reduce, reuse, recycle, but amplified. If more people and companies could purchase second-hand goods and materials, there would be less of a need to create. Ligia brings up a few important points when implementing policies to develop circularity:

  • Circularity has the potential to stratify classes of consumers. It could create an economy where the rich are the first-hand consumers and the poor are the second-hand consumers. Policy needs to take care to ensure that it encourages circularity in a way that also encourages egalitarian and responsible consumption.
  • Circularity could create “winner” and “loser” industries. There are some industries that would be able to implement circularity more easily because the materials are more easily recyclable. This could take down certain segments of manufacturing and inadvertently harm industries and workers; if this is the case, steps need to be taken to transition away from these industries rather than creating incentives for them to shut down overnight.
  • Circularity may have trade implications. Even beyond giving an advantage to countries that specialize in “winner” industries, projects in circularity must be cognizant of the impacts they will have on job creation and commodity-producing economies.

It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing a concept like circularity as an all-win no-lose concept. As Ligia points out, implementing circularity would dramatically shift the makeup of economies. Even if this shift is ultimately for the better, the consequences for the industries, workers, and consumers that are impacted along the way should not be ignored.


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