The circular economy has become one of the latest buzzwords in policy documents promoting a low-carbon, sustainable society. Like all buzzwords, it can mean different things to different people and crucially, nothing at all to many more.
When the EU launched its circular economy package in 2018, some European countries ‚Äď and multinational companies ‚Äď had already starting moving away from the linear economy model of ‚Äútake, make and throw away‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúextract, produce and discard‚ÄĚ when it comes to natural resources.
International companies such as Nike and Apple now have plans to source 100 per cent of their product-related materials from recycled goods and Siemens has targets such as zero waste and 100 per cent recovery at some of its manufacturing plants.
The global furniture maker, Ikea, aims to become a fully circular business by 2030. Its targets include designing products so they can be repurposed, phasing out virgin oil-based plastics from products and ensuring all packing materials are made from renewable or recycled material.
In Ireland, much of the focus on the circular economy ‚Äď with its ideal to bring all waste materials back into the production cycle ‚Äď has been on re-use and recycling. Organisations like the Community Reuse Network and Free Trade Ireland have captured the imaginations of eco-consumers keen to do their bit to reduce carbon emissions and prevent waste.
However, in many European countries there is a wider focus and the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform network now has 350 members across the EU. These include businesses, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, farmers and consumer groups. ‚ÄúEarly legislation in the circular economy has been about waste and recycling but it will move more into eco-design and different service and ownership models,‚ÄĚ said Cillian Lohan, network member and chief executive of the Green Economy Foundation, at the Environment Ireland conference in Dublin recently.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a three-year strategic partnership with the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, Dublin. Sarah Miller, Rediscovery Centre chief executive, says the building is already a demonstration site for circular economy principles through its design, re-use of building materials and operations. High levels of insulation solar panels, rain-water harvesting, grey water recycling and a green roof and green living wall are incorporated into the building, which originally was the boiler house for the Ballymun flats complex.
The centre is also home to social enterprises for recycled paint, up-cycled furniture, up-cycled fashion and bicycles. Staff and external facilitators run workshops and courses in reuse, repair and sustainable design. New products such as raincoats made from discarded tents, counter-top compost boxes and skateboards made from recycled crisp packets have been prototyped on green enterprise and sustainable design courses.
‚ÄúThe circular economy is beginning to gain momentum here now. There is a lot happening in the private and community sector but a lot of this activity isn‚Äôt connected. There would need to be policy drivers for triple bottom-line accounting [which accounts for the social and environmental costs as well as the economic costs] before exemplar products could be competitive. Only then would the true costs of extraction of raw materials, the manufacturing process and waste disposal be embedded in the economy,‚ÄĚ Miller adds.
But a circular economy is arguably much more than removing waste from the system through re-use networks, repair cafes and eco-enterprises. A truly circular economy must include eco-design principles which take a serious look at substitution of materials to save rare earth elements.
Romaine Couture leads the sustainability division of Irish Manufacturing Research, which represents 100 small/medium enterprises and 60 multinational companies. ‚ÄúWe are keen to structure efforts in the circular economy for Irish manufacturers. We need to think about developing services rather than products and a leasing economy where the manufacturer has responsibility for materials from the beginning to the end,‚ÄĚ he says.
Circular economy advocates say built-in obsolescence must be replaced with products that can be repaired and/or updated. ‚ÄúWe need business opportunities to develop markets for recycled plastics and industries need to develop symbiotic relationships where one company‚Äôs waste is another‚Äôs raw material,‚ÄĚ Couture says.
Geraldine Cusack is a senior business specialist in energy and water for Siemens. ‚ÄúThe earth functions in cycles with natural limits to resources. Societies have to regard those limits in order to survive,‚ÄĚ she says. For large international companies like Siemens, embracing the circular economy creates a business advantage as well as improving their environmental credentials, she notes.
‚ÄúIn Siemens, the global environmental programme for materials plans to reduce or replace eight critical earth materials in Siemens products,‚ÄĚ Cusack explains. To do this, substitute materials and technologies for materials such as magnets (derived partly from cobalt, a rare earth element which is difficult to extract and toxic to the environment) will have to be found.
As a member of a working group on the Circular Economy for the European Academies Science Advisory Council, Cusack says it‚Äôs important to take a global perspective. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs great to promote and engage civic society in the concept of the circular economy in Europe but we can‚Äôt work in a bubble. A lot of our resources come from outside of Europe. We have to take a broader look at what product/services/facilities we want, what resources need to go into producing these and if we don‚Äôt have the natural resources in Europe, what can be substituted instead. We have to redesign, rethink and experiment to see how we can do things better.‚ÄĚ
The EPA‚Äôs Circular Economy Programme
Eimear Cotter, EPA director of environmental sustainability, says a wide range of interventions are needed to move to a circular economy in Ireland. These include eco-design; eco-labelling; lifecycle assessment; secondary materials standards; recycling; durability; consumption awareness and education; clean production; repair and reuse; and green public procurement.
‚ÄúTrusted and transparent standards for materials staying in circulation need to be developed so that the quality of these materials is visible and verifiable for users and for regulators,‚ÄĚ she says. Green procurement has a role to play here also ‚Äď in particular by using the might of Government purchasing to prime suppliers into considering and adopting circular materials and processes.
In 2018, the EPA set aside a budget of ‚ā¨600,000 for its Innovation for a Circular Economy. With a focus on food-waste prevention, construction and demolition, plastics and eco-design, funding will be made available to consumer and business solutions that stimulate resource efficiency and the circular economy. The winners of these research grants will be announced this month.