At the moment our economy – and really the global economy – is largely linear.
That means that we tend to have a straight line from raw materials being pulled out of the ground, made into a product, bought and used by consumers, and then ultimately dumped.
Then the cycle starts again with some new raw materials being extracted from the earth.
And it’s that system that’s led to so much waste being produced by households and businesses.
According to the Eurostat, there were 4.8 tonnes of waste generated for each EU citizen in 2020.
Just under 40% of that was recycled – which is actually a big improvement over the past decade. But it still means the majority of our waste is either being dumped, incinerated, or put back into the ground as backfill.
The idea of the circular economy is to try to change that – by making better use of the materials that have already been extracted, and that exist in the many millions of products that have already been made.
That would mean we dig up new, raw materials far less often than we do today.
So it’s essentially about recycling?
Recycling is definitely part of it – but it’s only a small part of the circular economy.
And, in an ideal situation, it’s actually a last or second to last resort.
The concept of the circular economy is much broader; and it really starts with trying to extend the lifespan of what we already have.
That means repairing or upgrading our products and appliances, rather than replacing them the minute they stop working.
It’s also about resisting the temptation to replace something that’s already working fine or, if you are getting rid of something that still functions, finding someone else who’ll make use of it.
And when a product does get to the point of being beyond repair, circularity then means stripping out as much of what’s still functional for use elsewhere.
Or perhaps it’s about upcycling or reworking a product into something different altogether.
It’s only really at that point, after all of those steps are exhausted, that you start to look at recycling materials in the way that we think of it today.
And, even then, the goal is to recycle in a far more organised and efficient way so that much more of our waste material is given another life.
So really the goal is to keep things in use for as long as possible, then recycle them as much as possible – and have a much, much smaller flow of materials going to landfill as a result.
So how is Ireland doing in achieving that?
Like a lot of these attempts at going green, it’s a bit of a mixed bag for Ireland.
The good news is that we produce a lot less waste than the EU average – we produced around 3.25 tonnes per person per year in 2020, compared to 4.8 tonnes across the region.
But that is, in large part, because we have much smaller manufacturing, energy generation and mining industries than other member states.
When you look at the percentage of waste that’s coming from households and businesses, it’s a far higher proportion in Ireland than on average across the EU.
That level of waste per person is also going up – it’s up more than 17% in 8 years – so we’re throwing more things out now than before.
And while we are also recycling more than we were before, the system can’t keep up with that increase in materials, so the percentage of our waste that’s getting recycled is going down.
Our overall recycling rate in 2021 was 58%, according to the EPA, compared to 62% in 2020.
We need to reach 65% by 2025 in order to meet EU targets.
And we’re really bad in some areas, like plastic packaging – just 28% of that is recycled here.
The amount of waste we’re sending to landfill has fallen quite sharply since 2016 – which gives the impression of progress.
But that decline corresponds with a jump in the amount of waste that’s going to incineration for energy generation – following the opening of the Poolbeg Incinerator in early 2017.
So while that has meant there’s less going to landfill, it is undermining our environmental efforts in other areas.
It’s estimated that 2.7 kilograms of Co2 is emitted for every kilo of plastic burnt– and as the majority of our plastic waste is currently being incinerated rather than recycled, we’re creating a lot more Co2 than we need to.
And what that all means from a circular economy perspective, is that we’re doing quite badly.
According to the OECD, Ireland’s circular material use rate was 2% in 2020 – compared to nearly 13% across the EU.
So what’s being done to fix that?
Well there are groups established here to push the circular economy agenda here – like Circuléire.
And there are organisations offering resources and training – including postgraduate course in Trinity College Dublin and a certificate course in Munster Technological University.
And the State has also been trying to push for progress in this area – the EPA has a Circular Economy Programme running to 2027, while the Circular Economy Bill, signed into law last year, defines the circular economy in law for the first time.
It represents a first attempt at trying to create a framework for the kind of systems and incentives that are needed to make the circular economy work.
In what way?
Well one measure sees commercial waste having to be segregated – similar to what households are already used to.
They’re also trying to find ways to incentivise the better handling of waste – or in many cases dis-incentivise the mishandling, by adding levies to the less efficient or environmentally friendly disposal of different types of waste.
But it’s really just a first step because there is so much more involved in making the economy circular-first.
If people need to start thinking of recycling as a later step in the process, then there needs to be systems in place to make it as easy as possible to keep using what you have, or to pass it on to someone else when you’re done with it.
Some of that is already happening in an informal way, through Facebook groups and websites. The challenge is to make it more structured, and accessible to everyone around the country.
And when it is time to dispose of something, you need to have the systems in place to ensure that different types of waste can easily make their way to the right destination.
Some are calling on the Government to put itself at the centre of that.
For example the Labour Party wants the Government to establish a repair and recycle company, run through the local authorities, that would provide a kind of one-stop-shop for people looking to extend the life of their goods, or give them a new leases of life as something else.
There is only so much Ireland can do on this, though, isn’t there?
Absolutely – because this is a global issue, and getting to true circularity is going to require a major change at every level of the global supply chain.
Repairing is a good example – most people will have had an experience of having a device that stopped working and it ended up being easier, and maybe even cheaper, to just replace it with a new model, rather than repair it.
In some cases it’s actually impossible to repair them.
The explosion in demand for small wireless headphones – like AirPods – is seen by some as a huge environmental problem, for example.
That’s because the batteries only last a few years before they wear out, and with the components being so small – and glued together – it’s impossible to replace them.
That means the whole thing gets dumped.
So we need manufacturers to start designing products with repairability in mind – while some are resistant to.
But there are signs of progress on that front.
The European Commission has proposed new laws on the ‘right to repair’, which would require companies to build certain products with repairability in mind.
It would also require that they repair a product within its warranty period – rather than just replace it – and they would also have to offer repairs on products for ten years after it’s sold.
And even Apple, which has been one of the worst offenders on repairability of devices over the years, has started to make it a little bit easier for people to get their iPhone screens or batteries replaced.
Clothing and fast fashion waste is another big problem…
Yes – this has become a major issue in recent years because of the growth of fast fashion and cheap online retailers.
There’s around 5.2 million tonnes of clothing waste in the EU each year, and less than a quarter of that is recycled at the moment.
And a lot of what isn’t recycled ends up as a problem for developing countries.
Again, the EU is trying to tackle this, it’s going to require that textiles are disposed of separately from other waste by the start of 2025.
That shouldn’t mean that we have a clothes waste bin next to the green bin and the compost – the idea is the clothing companies will be asked to take responsibility for their goods from start to finish.
In practice that will likely mean that customers bring their old clothes back to the shop, and they’ll have to make sure that the materials are separated, recycled and ultimately re-used for new products.
How much of the onus for this is on the consumer, though?
There is a recognition – particularly at EU level – that there’s only so much the consumer can do.
If your product is impossible to repair, or there’s nowhere to recycle your ripped t-shirt, all the good will in the world won’t make a difference.
And so a lot of the focus has to be on making sure companies are making this as easy as possible for us – and making sure governments have the right systems in place to facilitate the change.
That being said, this will require a big mental shift for a lot of people.
Because many of us are guilty of buying new things that we don’t really need, or replacing a product that’s still working just because we want something new and shiny.
Or not bothering to repair something that’s acting up because it’s too much hassle.
Many many also still have a negative perception around the idea of taking second hand goods – they’d still see it as something only poor people do.
But there are signs of hope among consumers, too.
There are lots of freecycling groups online, for example, while TikTok is full of people showing you how to upcycle furniture and repair products.
And it seems that, among young people in particular, that negative perception around second hand goods – particularly clothes – isn’t as strong as it was before.
Depop, which is an app for people to sell the clothes and other items they’re finished with, has proven to be hugely popular in recent years.
It was bought by Etsy for $1.6 billion two years ago, so it’s clearly felt that there’s a big enough market there to be quite profitable.