by Susan Lee
All the major leaps forward we have made in the last century in terms of human well-being and economics has caused significant environmental damage. The way we use the earth’s resources means that we have seen ecosystems change more since the 1950s, than in any other period in human history.
Tackling resource use and waste is essential for climate action. Moving away from fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas sources is essential if we are to tackle climate change but it is only a part of the puzzle. By moving to renewable energy, 55%of GHG emissions will be mitigated but what about the other 45%? Well, that can only be tackled by looking at our land management and how we produce goods and services.
We need to find a way for the economy and the planet to thrive together. That is where the Circular Economy can help. It is a theory of material use and production which looks to make better and more efficient use of the Earth’s resources. The Circular Economy looks to design a product or service so there is no waste with products being usable in one form or another for longer, if not indefinitely.
What is a circular economy?
In a Circular Economy products and services are designed not from a “cradle-to-grave” perspective but a “cradle-to-cradle” one. It is all about keeping materials circling through our production system and avoiding virgin materials. Basically, do more with less. The linear take-make-dispose system is replaced with a focus on reusing, repairing, repurposing and recycling, with disposable as the very last possible option.
An easy way to understand the Circular Economy in action, and one you have likely done in the past – especially if you are Irish – is to think of how you used your school shirts.
You would wear and wash the same shirt for months, if not years. If a button fell off or a hole appeared it was stitched up. Then when it could not be worn anymore, it was cutup into pieces and used as a duster. Then finally it found its way into the bin, in a perfect world it would have been recycled. The humble school shirt was the Circular Economy in action.
In larger production systems at national and global scales, the Circular Economy is more complex. It will require clever design, specific infrastructure and connections between all players along supply chains. None the less, it is agreed that the Circular Economy is possible and necessary.
In a Circular Economy, a producer would ask themselves:
· How can the product be designed to make efficient use of materials and fit into a circular economy?
· How can the product be repeatedly used?
· How can it be repaired, refurbished, remanufactured or repurposed?
· How can it be recycled?
· How easy is it for consumers to engage with reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture or repurpose?
· At the end of its life, can the materials be used by another sector, can energy be recovered from the product?
Business examples of a Circular Economy in action where we can see the many R’s inaction:
· The clothing brand Patagonia use recycled material in 90% of their line, offer lifetime repairs on products, sell second-hand items and have introduced rental programmes on equipment and clothing.
· The tech company Dell has in place buy back programmes on many of their items. They refurbish and sell a large percentage of their returned systems.
· The online stores Depop and Thriftify are platforms where users and charity shops can sell their pre-loved clothing to individuals.
Ireland and circularity
Ireland has a way to go to become circular. Fortunately, we are bringing in a Circular Economy Bill and it is currently being debated in the Seanad.
Ireland at a glance:
· Ireland’s waste levels are continuing to increase, while recycling rates for municipal and plastic wastes are decreasing.
· Ireland’s current circularity rate is 1.6%, while the EU average is 11.9%*
· Our low rate is due to our geographic location; a lack of investment in recovery facilities and collection systems; inconsistent national frameworks; and a lack of awareness around sustainable behaviour.
· In 2021, 40% of Ireland’s top fifty companies had not started reporting on sustainability **
· Only 51% of IBEC members understood what is meant by Circular Economy ***
The Circular Economy has many advantages for Ireland. From an environmental standpoint it leads to the elimination of waste; avoidance of virgin materials; and an emphasis on renewable energy. It also allows for employment opportunities and savings for business.
Current state of affairs - the linear economy
Our current economic model is linear. Basically, we take resources from the earth, we make them into a product and then we dispose of said product. Less than 10%of materials are cycled back into our production systems (reused, recycled etc.) and the remaining 90% is disposed of as waste or emissions. Therefore,90% of what we extract from the earth we turn into some kind of waste. The earth’s resources are not endless, so there is only so long we can continue before we have nothing more to take. Materials will become limited, prices will rise and ecosystems will be put under greater strain.
Businesses do not exist in their own bubble, untouched by the environment they operate within. Ignoring this fact is not wise long term and eventually environmental costs will need to be paid by the producer (less likely) and the consumer (more likely). These costs become internalised either through governmental taxes based on the polluter pays principle; imposed regulations on materials and processes; wasted energy; waste from poor use of materials and excessive packaging; waning public support; unstable markets; or costly accidents.
Economic growth and sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive; it is just that the typical business model has separated them and often pitted them against each other.
Why we need the circular economy?
Europeans are currently consuming resources at twice the rate than the planet can renew them. Global production and consumption habits mean that we will need three Earths to meet our needs in 2050, if we continue as we are going. Transitioning to a circular economy, where waste is designed out, and biological (e.g. food waste)and technical nutrients (e.g. components from your phone) are kept circling within the production system - is seen as a key opportunity to tackle waste and excessive resource use.
The circular economy is a concept and not a concrete method of production. Realistically, achieving 100% circularity is not possible at the moment – with current technology anyway – but it is a practical framework for policy makers and the business community to understand the earth’s limits and contextualise the value of resources, with renewable energy powering production.
Ways to take Action
Tell your local T.D, Senators and Minister Ossian Smyth you want them to support and promote urgent measures to bring about an economy that is circular and not based on the traditional 'throw away' systems, we currently have - HERE
Susan Lee is the Programme Administrator for our Picker Pals Programme and
Policy advisor here at VOICE Ireland.
*DECC, 2021. Whole of Government Circular Economy Strategy 2022 – 2023, Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications
** KPMG, 2021. Sustainability Reporting - are you ready?
*** IBEC, 2019. Is Irish business getting ready for the Circular Economy