The language used in the announcement of the Ministry of the Environment on Tuesday evening was not one of the headlines, with speeches on a general regime, a circular economy and a “whole-of-government” approach.
However, the Circular Economy Bill 2021, once it becomes law and begins to be implemented, will change everything from how a product is made, used and reused, to how it can and must be recycled.
By 2030, if it works, the average Irish citizen will consistently pay homage to the circular economy by purchasing products that last, that can be reused and repaired, and that leave no waste when finished.
“Our relationship with products and services will be unrecognizable 10 years from now,” said Dr Sarah Miller, Managing Director of the Rediscovery Center in Ballymun, Dublin. “The very definition of ‘consumer’ will be a thing of the past.
“From product owner, we will become ‘product custodians’ as models of leasing, sharing and renting become more widespread,” she says, predicting that an explosion will take place in the resale of products. The second hand will become normal.
Second-hand clothing will replace fast-paced fashion – not just on Main Street, but also online, she predicts: “Stores will be used for resale, repair, rental, refill and salvage of materials for products, food and technology. “
Department stores, online retailers and manufacturers will need to invest in ‘reverse logistics’, where products can be seamlessly returned for reuse, while all other waste elements in the production cycle are also removed.
Carrot and stick
The changes will not come about through a massive conversion of the public to the green agenda, say recycling experts. Instead, it will be a combination of the carrot and the stick.
Polluting products will cost more in the form of outright penalties, taxes and bans. It will happen, its proponents say, in the same way that carbon taxes will move us away from fossil fuels.
The cheapest choice must become the most environmentally friendly choice.
None of this means it will be politically easy, because it will not be. It’ll be hard.
The words “circular economy”, however, have little meaning for the public. Half of the members of the Irish Confederation of Business and Employers admit they have no idea what this means.
However, the basic messages are clear. Currently, the world’s population – mainly the wealthiest regions, including Ireland – uses 50% more natural resources each year than the Earth can produce.
Based on everything we know now, that number will triple by 2050, even with all the talk from companies about green programs. The “take, make, dispose” approach must therefore come to an end. Likewise, the habits of products discarded quickly and the export of large amounts of “waste” caused by poor recycling infrastructure. Instead, all of this will need to be replaced by zero waste stores with recharging services.
The state’s record today is catastrophic. Each year, we generate over a million tonnes of food waste, resulting in a carbon bill, just for that, of 3.6 million tonnes of CO2.
Once created, the circular economy will sever 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 .
Few illusions about the difficulties this will create for policies, Bruton says, “He’s looking to rethink entire supply chains on that basis. We need to rethink the way we make and use cradle-to-grave products. “
Government legislation will attempt to articulate waste and climate plans; the national development plan, the waste directives of the European Union, the purchasing habits of the State.
The EU now recognizes that climate change and sustainability goals cannot be achieved without the circular economy. The crisis caused by plastic pollution entering human and animal food chains, in particular, must be tackled.
So what could this mean for the everyday life of people? First imagine simple things. Disposable plastics, like coffee cups, will be gone. Buying habits will be changed beyond recognition. Take-out meals delivered to your home will be delivered in reusable containers and will be collected by the catering point.
Households will need to dramatically improve waste sorting – a third of the waste currently placed in green bins should not be there, while only a third of the plastics used in products can be recycled.
All supermarkets will stop selling plastic wrapped products. Customers will bring reusable containers for fruit and vegetables, and even cleaning supplies, just as we have now grown accustomed to bringing reusable shopping bags.
Plastic bottles and aluminum cans will be collected through a deposit system for recycling and reuse, while “rediscovery centers” will promote reuse. Companies fitting out offices with second-hand furniture will become commonplace.
Harsh levies will deter sending waste for incineration, while companies that make things like mattresses, paints or textiles will become responsible when those products reach the end of their useful life.
Good things are already happening. The rest is “doable,” says Mindy O’Brien of Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment, if the state taxes the bad, encourages the good and supports the public’s right to reuse.
Some good examples can be copied, she says. Italy has a tax on virgin plastic used for packaging that encourages the use of recycled plastic, and Germany has a container fill target of 70%, she says.
Waste needs to be “designed,” she argues, including so-called “eternal chemicals” such as PFAS used by food manufacturers to create an impermeable and anti-grease barrier when combined with paper or cardboard.
The managing director of recycling company Repak, Séamus Clancy, said the state has certain advantages because it has solid data on waste since it is the only country in the EU to have a payment system. by weight for households.
“We need to reduce consumption and do things better with the resources available to us,” he says, although the state as a small island with no economies of scale faces challenges.
Businesses will quickly learn that green means brass, says reuse specialist Dr Miller, who says washing machine makers will charge per wash – retaining ownership of the product, but also responsibility for its reuse.
This will save the customer money, as maintenance, repair and replacement will be the responsibility of the manufacturer, thus encouraging them to build products that last. Intrinsic obsolescence will itself become obsolete.
“These models will create additional jobs locally in electronic repair and maintenance,” says Miller, “rather than just visiting stores to shop, people will be visiting Main Street to rent, repair and reuse.
“Rather than coming only to homes to drop off products, logistics companies will collect packaging and items that are rented or require repairs,” she adds.