The proper management of resources is crucial to securing a better, more sustainable Ireland for future generations. Michaela Reilly, Policy and Research Executive in Chambers Ireland, looks at the opportunity for Ireland to change the way that we produce, consume and trade goods in support of a more circular economy.
From linear to circular
As we get serious about combatting climate change and reaching our 2030 and 2050 goals respectively, the traditional ‘linear economy’ (take – make – dispose) must be overhauled. The inefficient consumption and missed opportunities for reuse, recycling and repair continue to lead to high waste generation, elevated greenhouse gas emissions, and overall soaring costs for consumers, businesses and government as they attempt to offset its damaging effects.
The circular economy, on the other hand, offers valuable solutions for all stakeholders creating value for society, economy and the environment. Based on the core idea of designing waste out of the system, in a circular economy, the value of materials and resources is retained for as long as possible and the creation of waste is minimised or prevented entirely. A circular economy keeps products in use for as long as possible and avoids waste generation. This can be achieved through sustainable design principles, reuse, repair, remanufacturing, recycling and new business models, such as sharing, renting or offering products as a service.
Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments to reduce the negative impacts of the traditional linear economy. Rather, it represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits. The importance of the economy needing to working together effectively at all levels is recognised – both for large and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, nationally and locally.
Opportunities from embracing circularity
The opportunities that the circular economy presents are numerous and continuously evolving. For individuals, it offers a more sustainable lifestyle with reduced environmental impact and lower household bills. For businesses, it provides the chance to reduce costs, improve raw material supply chains and increased opportunities to diversify into new business models and markets, attracting a variety of new customers. For society, the circular economy presents huge employment and innovation opportunities that will be essential in the post-Covid-19 recovery. If managed well, the transition to the circular economy will have multiple benefits for the labour market, including the opening up of job opportunities, raising job standards and reducing inequalities through a redistribution of value.
These, however, must be underpinned by training and upskilling of the workforce through the integration of circularity into education and training programmes and engagement between government and enterprise to enable access to these programmes, good quality jobs, and an inclusive labour market that provides opportunities for people that are distant from or at risk of being phased out of the labour market.
Skillnet Ireland’s new Climate Ready Initiative will go a long way in equipping businesses with the correct skills to participate in circular economy practices, thereby having a tangible involvement in building sustainable and competitive businesses and local communities across Ireland.
Although the exact GDP implications of increased innovation across an economy are difficult to quantify, the benefits of a more innovative economy include higher rates of technological development, improved material, labour, and energy efficiency, increased profit opportunities for businesses of all sizes and improved environmental standards.
Taking the policy lead from the EU
The European Commission adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) – ‘For a cleaner and more competitive Europe’ in March 2020, one of the main blocks of the European Green Deal agenda for sustainable growth. The plan contains 35 actions incorporating initiatives along the entire life cycle of products, targeting for example their design, promoting circular economy processes, fostering sustainable consumption, and aiming to ensure that the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible. It introduces legislative and non-legislative measures targeting areas where action at the EU level brings real added value.
The EU-level actions taken so far have focused on supply-side measures aimed at addressing negative impacts of products, services and production, and on dealing with materials that become waste. While both are critical, it is unlikely that supply-side tweaks alone will achieve the scale of change required in the time available. Instead, there is a need to not only address what we consume, but also the way we consume, how much and why.
With the exceptions of consumer information tools such as ecolabelling and voluntary green public procurement criteria, there are limits to how far EU level policy can go on demand-oriented policy instruments due to the current balance of policy responsibilities between the EU and its Member States. It is therefore up to each Member State to take the policy lead from the EU and adopt national strategies that incorporate all stakeholders to adopt circular economy practices.
How does Ireland fare?
September of last year saw the announcement of the national Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy by the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications giving direction to waste planning and management in Ireland over the coming 5 years. Designed to replace the previous national waste policy, A Resource Opportunity – Waste Management in Ireland, its overarching aim is to shift away from the current focus on waste disposal and treatment to ensure materials and products remain in productive use for longer. This is intended to prevent the build-up of waste and support the re-use of goods and materials in line with the new EU directives and the promotion of the circular economy. With over 200 actions, it echoes many of the ambitions committed to in the European Commission’s Green Deal, particularly the goals of the EU’s CEAP.
Although this is one significant step towards strategizing the circular economy in Ireland, the waste action plan has fallen short of sufficiently supporting businesses to engage with it. A lack of clear timelines on dates for prohibiting certain plastics, in addition to the absence of specific financial supports for SMEs and green upskilling and training will make it less attractive and affordable for businesses to alter their models of production, consumption, and supply chains.
Nonetheless, the recently published Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 presents an opportunity to streamline all national policies and frameworks under the goals of the circular economy that can support consumers, businesses and industry stakeholders to adapt sustainable circular practices. Should this bill pass into law, the 2019 Climate Action Plan will likely be revisited to incorporate new climate targets. It is hoped that any new plan will contain concrete ambitions to transition to the circular economy, with the correct funding, infrastructure and supportive frameworks to enable businesses to make a coherent and sustainable transition. The successful delivery of Project Ireland 2040 and the forthcoming revision of the National Development Plan will also be pinned to this.
If we are to accelerate our transition to a low carbon circular economy on a national scale, sufficient funding, supportive frameworks and infrastructure must underpin national efforts. The business community will play a key role in adapting production, waste systems and supply chains to enable a sustainable transition to the circular economy.
You can find out more about Chambers Ireland’s work in this space and their pledge to the UN SDGs here.