Consuming less, but better – the delicate balancing act of the circular economy

The future need not be about stopping consuming, just giving it more consideration

The rate of consumption of resources by humans on the planet has increased four-fold since 1970, while the population has merely doubled. We are all using much more things and recycling far less of them. In fact, the rate of global recycling fell from 9.1 per cent to 8.6 per cent in the last two years.

Somehow, we need to find ways of extracting less primary raw materials (minerals, fossils and metals) and reusing the ones we’ve already extracted. This idea is known as a circular economy, in which renewable energy powers systems that reuse materials, so that waste and pollution are reduced to zero. It may seem complex, but it’s actually how nature works.

Individuals are not capable of implementing these changes on their own, but each of us can help. There’s the potential to create €1.65 billion of GDP by shifting to a circular economy in Ireland, according to the environmental services company, Veolia. It requires all of us to give consideration to what we’re consuming, and rather than trying to halt our consumerist yearnings when we’re in the giddy throes of shopping at a store or on online, it can help instead to focus on what we’re throwing away and why.

Reducing household waste

In 2014, Ireland had the sixth highest level of municipal waste per capita in the European Union at 586kg. This is double that of some other EU countries. The Netherlands are committing to reducing household waste to 10kg of municipal and bulky waste per resident per year, and are aiming to achieve this by opening a network of centres where items can be adapted for reuse, or else prepared for recycling.

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In Ireland there are some early initiatives to try something similar. The CRNI (a national network supporting reuse, repair and recycling enterprises) are supporting projects like thriftify.ie, a web resource that offers an online market place for most of Ireland's leading charity shops to sell donated clothes, books, CD, computer games and bric-a-brac online. The selection of items listed is limited enough, and there's a delivery charge of €4.85 for items under 1kg, but it could be a valuable resource if we were to use it more.

There’s a small social enterprise in Newmarket, Co Cork, which has collected in excess of 4,500 items of old furniture since 2016 for redistribution or refurbishment. They’re called Duhallow REVAMP, and of the 110 tons of furniture they’ve diverted from landfill over 103 tons has been redistributed. They maintain a strict target of using no more than 10 per cent new materials in their refurbished furniture, and, on average, manage less than 5 per cent of new fabric, paints, varnishes, etc.

See irdduhallow.com/community-services/duhallow-revamp/

Local authorities have also teamed up with CRNI to create repairmystuff.ie which connects consumers with repair technicians in every county who will fix anything from TVs to shoes, jewellery, telephones, fitness machinery, small appliances, musical instruments, garden machinery, upholstery, bags, leatherwork and watches.

Environmental toll

Some counties are better represented on the website than others, but again this network will grow the more we use it. We just need to get back into the mindset of repairing rather than replacing worn items. Fixing a washing machine will cost less than €150, while a new one will cost at least €300. It makes total sense to repair it, particularly if you’ve bought a good-quality machine initially. Repairing will also has a genuine impact on decreasing our consumption of natural resources, as it’s the manufacture and distribution of a product that exerts the most environmental toll.

Consuming less does not need to entail any reduction in one’s quality of life, rather it can encourage us to buy better quality things that last longer and work more efficiently. The main challenge is to break the spell that marketing casts upon us to continuously update our possessions and to consume ever more. This practice increases manufacturers’ profit, but it also leaves them with a glut of old models that can now often be bought on Amazon, directly from the company warehouse. In the last year I needed to replace a Siemens cordless home phone and a Magimix food producer; both had served me for over 20 years, and I was able to replace them at significantly reduced prices, by choosing older models. The future need not be about stopping consuming, just giving it more consideration.