The language used in the Environment Department’s announcement on Tuesday evening was not the kind that made the headlines, with talk of a generalized system, a circular economy and a “nationwide” approach.
However, once passed and implemented, the 2021 Circular Economy Act will change everything – from the way a product is made, used and reused, to the way it can and must be recycled.
By 2030, if this works, the average Irish citizen will be routinely paying homage to the circular economy by buying durable products that can be reused, repaired and that leave no waste when completed.
“Our relationships with products and services will no longer be recognizable in 10 years,” says Dr. Sarah Miller, General Manager of the Rediscovery Center in Ballymun, Dublin. “The definition of ‘consumer’ will be a thing of the past.
“From the product owner, we are becoming ‘product custodians’ as leasing, sharing and rental models become mainstream,” she says, predicting an explosion in the resale of products. Second hand is becoming normal.
Second-hand clothing will replace fast fashion – not just on the main street, but also online, she predicts: “Shops are used for reselling, repairing, renting, restocking and recycling products, food and technology. “
High street stores, online retailers and manufacturers need to invest in reverse logistics, where products can be seamlessly returned for reuse while removing all other waste elements in the production cycle.
Carrot and whip
Recycling experts argue that the changes will not come about through a mass shift of the public to the green agenda. Instead, it will be a carrot and whip combination.
Polluting products are made more expensive by fines, taxes and total bans. It will, its proponents say, happen in much the same way that carbon taxes will wean us off fossil fuels.
The cheaper choice must become the most environmentally friendly choice.
None of this means that it will be easy politically because it won’t be. It will be tough.
However, the words “circular economy” mean little in public. Half of the members of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation admit they have no idea what that means.
The basic messages, however, are clear. Currently, the world’s population – mainly the richer parts, including Ireland – uses 50 percent more natural resources each year than the earth can produce.
For what we know today, this will triple by 2050, despite all the corporate talk about green agendas. The approach “take, manufacture, dispose” must end. Likewise, the habits of products that can be disposed of quickly and the export of large amounts of “waste” due to a poor recycling infrastructure. Instead, all of this must be replaced by zero-waste warehouses with a refill service.
The state’s record today is miserable. Every year we produce more than 1 million tons of food waste, which alone results in a carbon footprint of 3.6 million tons of CO2.
Once in place, the circular economy will break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation, says Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton, who wrote a report on the circular economy for the Climate Action Committee.
With little illusion about the difficulties this will create for politics, Bruton says, “On this basis, she is trying to rethink supply chains as a whole. We need to rethink how we make and use products from cradle to grave. “
Government legislation will attempt to merge waste and climate plans; the national development plan, the waste directives of the European Union, the state’s own purchasing habits.
The EU now accepts that the climate protection and sustainability goals cannot be achieved without the circular economy. In particular, the crisis caused by plastic pollution entering human and animal food chains needs to be addressed.
So what could it mean for people’s daily life? First, imagine simple things. Single-use plastics like coffee cups will go away. Shopping habits are changed beyond recognition. Home-delivered takeaway food is delivered in reusable containers and collected from the food counter.
Households need to get much better at sorting waste – a third of the waste currently thrown in the green bin shouldn’t be there, while only a third of the plastics used in products can be recycled.
Every supermarket will stop selling products in plastic packaging. Customers will bring reusable containers for fruit and vegetables, even cleaning products, as we are now used to bringing reusable shopping bags.
Plastic bottles and aluminum cans are collected for recycling and reuse by a deposit collection system, while “rediscovery centers” encourage reuse. Companies that equip offices with used furniture are becoming part of everyday life.
Strict taxes will deter people from sending rubbish for incineration, while companies that make things like mattresses, paints or textiles are responsible for when these products reach the end of their useful life.
Some good things are already happening. The rest is “doable,” says Mindy O’Brien of the Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment, if the state taxes the bad, promotes the good and supports the public’s right to reuse.
Some good examples can be copied, she says. Italy is levying a tax on virgin plastic used in packaging, which encourages the ingestion of recycled plastic, and Germany has a container refill target of 70 percent, she says.
Waste has to be “designed”, she argues, including so-called “forever chemicals” such as PFAS, which are used by food manufacturers to create a water- and grease-proof barrier in combination with paper or cardboard.
Séamus Clancy, CEO of Repak recycling company, says the state has some advantages because it has solid data on waste as it is the only EU country with a household chip-and-pin system that pays by weight .
“We have to reduce consumption and make better use of the things we have,” he says, although the state faces challenges as part of a small island with no economies of scale.
Companies will quickly learn that green means brass, says reuse specialist Dr. Miller, who says that washing machine manufacturers charge according to laundry – and thus retain ownership of the product, but also responsibility for its reuse.
This saves the customer money as maintenance, repair and replacement are the responsibility of the manufacturer and encourages them to build long-lasting products. Built-in obsolescence is itself becoming obsolete.
“These models will create additional jobs in electronic repair and maintenance on site,” says Miller. “Instead of just going to stores to shop, people will go to the high street to rent, repair and reuse.
“Instead of just going home to drop off products, logistics companies pick up packaging and items that have been rented or need repairing,” she adds.