The Fiction of Closed Systems: The Circular Economy Discourse of the Global Petrochemical Industry

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
Alice MAH, University of Warwick, United Kingdom
Despite efforts to improve its environmental reputation, the global petrochemical industry remains a significant source of toxic pollution. This research focuses on two global integrated petrochemical clusters: 1) Nanjing, China, the second largest in China, with weak regulations and high pollution levels; and 2) Antwerp, Belgium, the largest in Europe, with comparatively strong regulations and low pollution levels. The research draws on qualitative interviews with petrochemical representatives, site tours, and analysis of corporate documents conducted between 2016 and 2017. Despite stark differences in regulations and risks, multinational petrochemical companies in Nanjing and Antwerp share a common corporate discourse of the ‘circular economy’. The ‘circular economy’ is a sustainable business model based on the concept of a cyclical closed-loop system. Since the model was adopted within China in 2006 as a basis for their economic development, it has also become a buzzword within European policy.

This paper argues that the petrochemical industry’s adoption of the circular economy discourse does not represent a move towards greater corporate environmental responsibility. The petrochemical industry cannot claim to have fully closed systems, whether environmental, economic, social, or spatial. Nor can the industry claim that it produces no waste, including toxic pollution. However, through invoking the fiction of a closed system with no waste, the circular economy discourse draws an artificial boundary around each petrochemical site, displacing corporate responsibility for toxic leakage. The idea of the circular economy superficially resonates with the model of integrated petrochemical clusters, which concentrate petrochemical producers and related industries next to logistics networks, with the aim of more efficient production. Integrated petrochemical clusters operate like securitized city-states, with their own border controls, fire brigades, medical staff, contractor villages, technological infrastructure, and waste processing systems. Spatially, they appear closed off, yet they are deeply interconnected with their surrounding environments.