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Circular Economy

The Circular Economy is all about keeping things in circulation for as long as possible, and creating minimal or zero waste. The lifetime of a product can be extended by keeping it repaired, repurposed, refurbished or upcycled. End of life products should be recyclable or compostable. We can also keep items in use by selling them, donating them to charity, giving them away free or renting them. When it comes to food, toiletries and cleaning products the goal is to create zero waste – so choose packaging that can be recycled or sent back to the retailer. An even better choice is no packaging at all.

The term ‘circular economy’ was coined by round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen McArthur.  You can find out more on this website: The Ellen McArthur Foundation.

At present we have a linear economy where raw materials are taken from nature, products are created and used for a limited time, then thrown away.  In a circular economy products are designed with circularity in mind so that every component can be recovered and reused in some form.  Circular principles can be applied to almost everything – from fashion to cars, buildings, electronics, furniture, food and much more.

Fashion

Many of today’s big fashion brands are starting to take recycling and reusability seriously, and many clothing rental companies have come onto the scene.  Stella McCartney is taking part in the Make Fashion Circular initiative and is now Cradle to Cradle certified (a system of scoring brands for their commitment to the circular economy).  High street shoe chain Schuh allows customers to bring back their old shoes, where they are recycled in partnership with a company called Recyclatex.  Mud Jeans customers can buy or rent jeans, and eventually return them to MUD to be recycled. 

Electronics and Computers

Dell is one computer manufacturer where products are designed with the environment and recyclability in mind. The company tries to design out waste through a product’s entire life cycle, and products are built with disassembly in mind.  Labelling parts also helps recyclers handle them efficiently when a product reaches the end of life.  Modular design allows parts to be swapped out and upgraded easily, increasing the useful life of products.  Some products can be refurbished and resold, while others can be broken down to separate useful components out, and the rest is recycled.

If all computers were to use industry-standard plugs, sockets and sizes for various critical components, it would create a vibrant second-hand market for parts. The EU is working on harmonising the design of digital devices, and they have already standardised the design of mobile phone chargers.

Buildings

At present, houses and buildings are demolished and the waste ends up in landfill.  In a circular economy, houses would be constructed in a way that allows recovery and reuse of various components such as windows, doors, flooring materials, kitchen and bathroom units and fittings. Cement and steel could be substituted with materials that are easier to recycle and reuse.  In this way a lot of construction and demolition waste could be diverted from landfill and reused, reducing the need for virgin materials.  In 2020 the EU produced a paper entitled ‘Circular Economy Principles for Building Design’.  The paper aims to help reduce the environmental impacts and lifecycle costs of buildings.

Furniture

IKEA is one company that is starting to re-design the way products are sold.  Some of their furniture is made from 100% recycled wood and plastic, and some furniture is modular so that pieces can be added or taken away as needed.  They encourage their customers to repair and reuse their furniture, or pass them onto other people or charities when they are no longer needed.  The company also allows customers to return their furniture to their shops if they are no longer required.  The company will then upcycle or reuse the products or components of the products – so they are seen by the company as a useful resource.

Cars

A circular economy of sorts has always applied to the car industry, and about 75% of a car’s material at end of life can be recovered. The EU’s End-of-Life Vehicles Directive has now set a target of 95% recyclability per vehicle per year.

Car parts such as engines, wheels, tyres, batteries, catalytic converters, electronic modules, alternators, starter motors, transmissions and infotainment systems are all removed, and can be resold if they are in good condition or refurbished.  The remaining shell is then crushed flat and sent to an industrial shredder or hammer mill, and the metal is sold to steel mills for recycling.

Food

Terracyle has launched a project called ‘Loop’ which aims to revolutionise the way customers buy products.  Packaging is owned by the seller and is collected after use.  Some of the large supermarket chains such as Tesco have signed up to trial the new circular system in the UK.

Rental Model

Young people will find this hard to believe, but back in the early 70s most people rented their TVs.  Renting items means that you are not responsible for the repair or disposal of an item, and if it breaks down the company will replace it with another.  Car rental is another example, and it is predicted that in the future we will rent rather than own cars.  Many things that people currently buy could be rented.  For example, electrical products, bicycles, DIY and gardening tools, computers and printers, sports equipment, children’s toys, games, etc.  By renting the same product to several clients, manufacturers can increase revenues per unit.  It also means that fewer items are produced.  So renting is another aspect of the circular economy because products are repaired rather than thrown away, and products are kept in circulation for as long as possible. The rental company is responsible for the product at the end of its life, and can work with the manufacturer when it comes to recycling, reuse and refurbishment.

We need a circular economy

The way we live in Ireland and in most European countries is unsustainable, depleting the world’s limited resources and creating ever more waste.  If everyone in the world used as many resources as Europeans, we would need 2.6 Earths to support our population.  The “take, make, waste” model cannot continue, it has to change.  The EU has now adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan – one of the main blocks of the European Green Deal, and Ireland has now produced a Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy (2020-2025).

Circular strategies could also keep the planet well below a 2°C trajectory because a decrease in production means lower emissions.  There is a clear business case for individual companies too, because recovering, refurbishing and re-selling used products means lower production costs.

For citizens, a circular economy would provide high-quality, functional and safe products, which are efficient and affordable, last longer and are designed for reuse, repair, and high-quality recycling.  It could also help create more jobs.  The European Environmental Bureau suggests that expanding the reuse, repair and recycling sectors alone can create over 200,000 new jobs in the EU.

For more information check out the following videos:

RTE’s ‘Eco Eye’ series – episode on the Circular Economy: