3 questions to Sophie Bernard

Published on 23 April 2019

Having completed her PhD in Economics at the University of Ottawa, Sophie Bernard then did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ecole d’Economie from Paris. In 2011, she became a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Industrial Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal. Sophie Bernard specializes in public policy for the environment and the management of end-of-life products. In particular, she works on remanufacturing, recycling, eco-design incentives for products and international trade in waste. She is particularly interested in the illegal waste market and extended producer responsibility. Her work falls within the broader theme of circular economy on which she has developed an expertise.

What are the stakes of the circular economy?

I wonder here about the circular economy, not the concept, but the recent movement, the one that fuels the development of new public policies (roadmap, law on planned obsolescence, etc.), that the industry is interested in (service economy, collaborative economy) and that animates blogs on lifestyle and social trends (minimalism, zero waste, etc.). I see two important issues:

  • Of course, the circular economy can be both profitable and reduce pressure on the environment, but a priori the only criterion retained by companies remains profitability. How can we avoid getting the purely commercial version of the sharing economy and the “100% recycled”? How to avoid greenwashing?
  • The circular economy promotes material loops, and mainly at the local level. At the same time, some materials are described as critical or strategic when they are scarce, and when reserves are held by a small number of countries. The criticality of the resource invites nations to strategically position themselves to ensure the long-term availability of the resource. In this perspective, the circular economy could appear as national protectionist strategies where the resource circulates in local loops, jealously guarded within the borders of a country. In that case the circular economy would be acting as a tool for manipulating the terms of trade. In this context, what is the desirable role of international trade in the circular economy, and what is the desirable role of the circular economy in international trade?

What is the link between the circular economy and the fight against climate change?

They are inseparable. In a systemic reflection on the circular economy, energy losses and polluting emissions should be considered in the same way as losses and inefficiencies related to the use of material. The material-pollution problem cannot be independent. For example, the different energy transition scenarios are based on building a green capital for the production (and storage) of alternative energies. The transition therefore depends on a capital of material, and the linear or circular management of this material will determine the success of the transition.

What are the differences/similarities on this subject between public policies in France and in Canada?

Canada is drawing inspiration from France, the European Union and Japan for the introduction of public policies on recycling and extended producer responsibility. More recent policies, particularly those on planned obsolescence, are being scrutinized. However, Canada must develop and adapt these strategies because the context is different: the territory is huge with a low population density and small markets, many virgin resources are abundant, and international trade relies heavily on the United States. The geopolitical stakes are different, and the logistics networks for distribution and re-routing of material take place at different scales!