The ideas and policies that constitute the circular economy present some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for communities throughout the world, as countries come to grips with some of the most pressing problems facing our planet.
At its most elemental, a circular economy offers a path beyond the current model of take-make-waste to one which encompasses new ways for economic growth, and crucially one which can spread benefits across society.
Central to the circular economy is sustainability, underpinned by a commitment to transition to renewable energy sources. The three defining principles which inform circular economic thinking are designing out waste and pollution, the shift to keeping products and materials in use as much as possible, and regenerating natural systems.
The notion of circularity is as old as well, the circle. As an influential system of thought which informs policy, it is enjoying a resurgence as governments and industry grapple with a multitude of problems including everything from waste generated from food production and consumption, building and design, habitat loss, and greenhouse gas production.
This past September, the Irish government launched A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, a new five-year plan which will run until 2025. It sets out a holistic view for how the country will transition to a new economic model in which circular economic thinking informs processes and policies.
The government's action plan pulls no punches: “By 2050, we will need three planet earths to meet our resource demands in a business-as-usual scenario.”
The roadmap follows the publication earlier this year of the European Green Deal, the EU’s signature action plan which sets out a massively ambitious plan to make Europe climate-neutral, ie, a zero emitter of greenhouse gasses, by 2050. A raft of policies and legislation based on circular-economic principles and other measures is key to that deal.
McKinsey & Co consultancy estimates that adopting circular-economy principles, could generate a net economic benefit of €1.8 trillion by 2030 across Euoropean economies.
The Irish government’s Waste Action Plan is in alignment with the Circular Economy Circular Economy Action Plan.
Eamon Ryan, Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, in outlining the government’s response, said: “The ‘Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy’ goes beyond the management of waste and addresses how we look at resources more broadly, capturing and maximising the value of materials that may in the past have been discarded.”
Europeans still have a long way to go before fully maximising the value of what we throw away: in 2012, 60 per cent of discarded materials were either put in a landfill or incinerated, while only 40 per cent were recycled or reused.
Under the new waste action plan, Ireland has set worthy goals in line with European countries to reduce, reuse and recycle waste across a wide spectrum.
By 2035, the aim is to have no more than 10 per cent of waste generated from households and business end up in landfills. Achieving this will require interventions and regulations from product design and manufacturing to standardising bin colours across the country, improving education around waste segregation to implementing a waste recovery levy at landfill and incineration sites.
The national waste roadmap also contains new targets and directives which will come into effect beginning in 2021. In particular, single use plastics (SUP) – plastic bottles, food containers, coffee cups, and soft drinks containers – are singled out for retiring.
According to the government’s Waste Action Plan, “$80 – $120 billion is lost annually to the global economy through the loss of plastic packaging material in single use plastics and only 5% of material value is retained for further use.”
From July 3, 2021, a raft of SUP products will be banned from the Irish market, including cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, chopsticks and expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers which are, for the most part, the mainstays of the takeaway food and drink industry.
Intervention is at the heart of the circular economy, but it is also one which is additive: adapting circular-economy principles will bring major growth and opportunities, and it is estimated that it can contribute €1.65 billion to GDP in Ireland whilst creating employment opportunities.
“There is a huge potential for jobs growth and carbon savings in this sector if we are to tackle the 2.9 million tons of waste generated in Ireland annually,” said Claire Downey, executive at Community Resources Network Ireland (CRNI), an all-island representative body for community-based reuse, recycling and waste prevention organisations.
According to PJ Cullen, managing director of Aengus Consulting Ltd. and an expert on how Ireland’s construction industry can adapt to a circular economy, now is the time for Ireland’s construction industry “to take ownership of this unique opportunity to accelerate new methods of working to improve construction productivity and climate resilience as an integrated package”.
As Cullen pointed out in an article for Irish Building earlier this year, in 2017, waste from construction generated approximately 4.8 million tons, nearly twice as much as that of municipal waste.
The challenge for the construction industry is one which businesses and households across Ireland and the world face: how to keep productivity and consumption in line with a planet that desperately needs our attention and compassion, while finding new ways of thinking and doing.