The EMF butterfly diagram imagines biological resource loops that are wholly separate from the technical systems that produce materials like synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, flame retardants, and non-stick coatings. These technical materials are toxicants (Liboiron 2017), quite distinct from the naturally produced toxins found in fungi, snakes, or spiders. They are synthetic and man-made. However, in this depiction of a circular economy, they are bounded from the left and circulate within the confines of “technical” loops. The possibility of trespass is not acknowledged in the ideal circular economy.
Gregson et al. (2015) and Reno (2011) have both observed that the concept of the circular economy, as used among both academics and practitioners, “tends to be uncritical, descriptive and deeply normative” (Gregson et al. 2015:219). Part of the efficiency-based, technological optimism of eco-modernity, circular economy is celebrated as a triple-win concept which allows for simultaneous environmental protection, efficiency gain, and economic growth. And yet, as Liboiron (2018) and others have argued, when these systems are materially entangled and the onto-epistemological boundaries we have built are not strong enough to contain chemistry, the toxicity of much of the waste stream presents a “serious problem for concepts like circular economy, which assumes that all wasted materials can be brought back into economic and consumption cycles” (Liboiron 2018:1).
This uncritical embrace of the circular economy model speaks to a larger issue: the often-unacknowledged influence of modernist thinking in contemporary discourses of environmental sustainability, including those related to the circular economy. Modernism, in this context, refers to more than simply a naïve faith in the power of new technologies to cut cleanly through complex environmental problems (Wapner 2010). As Latour and others have contended, modernist thought distinguishes itself through the creation of impermeable ontological boundaries between the natural world and the human world (Latour 1993; Bennett 2010). It is this modernist logic that is used to promote the circular economy as a means to decouple economic growth (a human institution) from ecological harm (nature) through innovation and alternative technologies. The United Nations Environment Program writes, “Improving the rate of resource productivity (doing more with less) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind decoupling” (2011:vx). This shift, the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute argues, will require a “radical decoupling of humans from nature” (2015:23). Because it assumes that nature and society are separate, this eco-modernist thinking is myopic when it comes to recognizing the entanglement of biological and technical materials in the creation of contemporary environmental problems, such as the contamination of food waste. Sometimes toxicants are entangled with food as far back as the farm, when pesticides were applied and remain, in trace amounts, on food products later discarded. In other cases, toxicants make their way in through food packages that contain, for example, PFAS designed to prevent sticking or the penetration of grease. As in many environmental discourses like that associated with the circular economy, an ecomodernist logic further deepens concepts of a nature-culture divide, by insisting that natural limits can be overcome by maintaining boundaries and through technological progress. As eco-modernists Shellenberger and Nordhaus have notoriously written “The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and always has been, more modernity” (2012:1).
This failure, or refusal, to recognize entanglement is not only built on a nature culture divide, but it also frames all problems and solutions as matters of applying human innovation to nature. It refuses to acknowledge that some problems have their roots in human political-economic systems that enable environmental benefits and burdens to be distributed in highly unequal and unjust ways. In the context of circular food systems, this failure to recognize the politics of entanglement has created a system which holds composters and digesters responsible for securing the line between biological and technical processes while the companies that produced trespassing chemicals accrue the benefits and, all too often, evade responsibility. In just the past few years, stories of toxic trespass have multiplied—of crops ruined, of milk cows contaminated, and of loads of contaminated compost sent to the landfill (Crunden 2020; Hannon 2021). Stories about PFAS and persistent herbicides suggest that one of the fundamental goals of the circular economy—to design waste and pollution out of the system (De Decker 2018; Haas et al. 2015)—has gone unfulfilled. Instead, the majority of efforts to implement the circular economy in food systems are confined to the end of the lifecycle in the waste processing phase (CGRI 2020), long after the toxicants that might accumulate in our food systems have been engineered, sold, produced profits, and introduced into both biological and technical systems. The laborers who power food waste processing systems, it seems, are increasingly on the front lines, trying to defend biological processes from toxic intrusion.
Anthropological and sociological research has revealed that our experiences and understandings about toxic entanglements are shaped by our historical experiences and situational positions. Communities that have suffered multiple exposures at the hands of industrial polluters and have had their concerns dismissed by regulatory agencies—like the Hyde Park residents described by Melissa Checker (2005), the residents of Colonia Periférico of whom Elizabeth Roberts writes (2017), or of the First Nations people living in Canada’s Chemical Valley described by Sara Weibe (2016)—understand toxics and potential risks through a memory and embodiment of environmental injustices, ill health, and contestations with colonial scientific and regulatory regimes. These communities try to create and maintain boundaries as part of what Roberts calls a “crucial survival response within the continued violent capitalist interpenetration of all the earth's biota” (2017:594). Communities such as these have been in the vanguard of political agitation for environmental justice, building on the legacy of civil rights activism to call for the spaces where people live, work, and play to be protected from toxic incursions (Di Chiro 1996; Mohai et al 2009; Taylor 2000). Through numerous local struggles, participants in this movement have crafted a politically resonant frame, or characterization of these toxic assaults, that asserts that “the rights of toxic contamination victims have been usurped by more powerful social actors, and that ‘justice’ resides in the return of these rights” (Capek 1993: 8). At a minimum, these rights are understood in both distributive and procedural terms, that is, in terms of the elimination of arrangements that disproportionately and unjustly subject disenfranchised communities to environmental risks and in terms of the creation of democratic mechanisms to allow for full community participation in decisions that affect the welfare of residents (Shrader-Frechette 2005).
But what happens when toxic entanglements ensnare those who have traditionally been racially, ethnically, or financially privileged to have lived without a memory of toxic injustice and who are, rather, involved in highly celebrated sustainability efforts? In certain ways, the food waste processors in our study occupy a position that is not unlike those of residents of communities facing toxic contamination: they are forced to deal with toxicants produced by industry for private gain, and they face significant health and financial risks as a result of this situation. But these processors also possess numerous social advantages which, historically, have discouraged people of privilege from linking personal troubles to a larger critique of unjust social arrangements (Kozlowski and Perkins 2015) or to think reflexively about modernist ontologies that create false separations. If these food waste processors are exposed to chemicals that endanger their health or their businesses are forced to bear legal and economic liability for contamination they did not introduce—do they come to understand the transition toward the circular economy in a different way? Or do their privileged positions in society or their professional occupations prevent them from calling out these problems? These are not idle questions. As critics have pointed out, proponents of the circular economy have largely avoided discussions about how to ensure just transitions to a circular economy, preferring a technocratic approach that emphasizes the apolitical and abstract environmental benefits of circular arrangements (Kirchherr et al 2017; Murray et al. 2017). The ability of circularity to exercise a truly transformative force in economic arrangements, however, may well hinge on the ability of participants to understand themselves in solidarity with others who struggle against toxic contamination and to embrace critiques of unequal power and accountability in profit-oriented industrial agricultural systems.