Radical measures including forcing manufacturers to reduce waste packaging and to redesign products to make them more sustainable are among recommendations by an all-party Oireachtas committee to expedite a switch to a circular economy.
In a report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Circular Economy Bill 2021 issued on Thursday, the Committee on Environment and Climate Action strongly supported moves to require larger supermarkets to allocate 20 per cent of floor space to reusable/refillable products – as has been introduced in France.
The Bill is heavily criticised for weak language, a lack of robust targets and an absence of detailed timelines to ensure all sectors of the economy make the transition “backed by greater levels of accountability and progress reporting”.
The committee strongly recommended ending or moving away from references to “waste” in the Bill in an attempt to shift focus towards “resources” and resource management.
There is little incentive to buy reused or repaired products “as it is generally cheaper to buy new than have something repaired”, it concluded.
Committee chairman and Green Party TD Brian Leddin said they strongly endorse the ending of the current global economic model based on a linear model of "take-make-waste", whereby raw materials or natural resources are taken and turned into products that ultimately become waste due to their design.
A circular economy minimises waste by reusing or remanufacturing products or parts of products, keeping materials in use for longer through design, repair and reuse. When a product has reached the end of its life, its parts are used again and again to create further useful products.
The Programme for Government commits to “a more sustainable and responsible system and culture for consumption, use and re-use of materials and end of use recycling and disposals” – in line with a demanding European Union circular economy package.
Committee rapporteur on the issue Richard Bruton TD said Ireland's "circularity" was poor – an eighth of the average of EU countries – which underlined the scale of what was required: "Removing environmental damage in supply chains from start to end."
With indications that “80 per cent of environmental impact is baked in at the design stage”, there was a need to move away from unsuitable use of materials, he added.
The report noted the estimate that raw material resources currently used is 50 per cent more than nature can replenish in a year, “and this will rise to a factor of three by 2050 on present trends”.
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said the public has a strong desire to recycle and reuse goods, but she was aware of real challenges in running repair cafes because of VAT rate and insurance issues that make it difficult to make any money. “You can’t make it more expensive,” she said at a briefing on the report.
The Committee expressed concern the term “recovery” used in the Bill is ambiguous and often used synonymously with incineration, which could unintentionally be interpreted as including incineration in the circular economy fund. “This would be in direct conflict with the new European Green Deal funding which explicitly excludes incineration having access to such funding.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has accepted greater clarity was needed in the drafting and advised this was not the policy intention of the Bill “but rather that materials sent for recovery to incineration would incur a levy that would fund the circular economy fund”.
The Committee recommended a stronger, broader definition of the circular economy “that goes beyond the limits of resource use, and that greater emphasis needs to be placed on ‘reduction’ to encourage the reduction of resource use and to ensure that environmental damage is reduced all along supply chains”.
“There is a need for strong leadership with regard to reusables in order to move away from the disposable economy, including ‘biodegradable’ packaging as they are likely to be incorrectly disposed of,” Mr Leddin said. Government departments, including the Houses of the Oireachtas, should consider leading the move from disposables by implementing a reuse policy within departments he said.
Members noted “while increasing awareness around correct bin use was needed, a more effective option would be to simplify packaging at manufacturer level which would also simplify disposal and make it easier to recycle less complex materials”.
The Committee also agreed “planned obsolescence” is challenging, particularly with electronics - whereby consumer goods rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials.
While some EU member states have legislated for a ban on obsolescence they have found difficulty with regard to implementation. “The Committee agreed further examination of the issue was needed to ascertain if measures such as enabling ‘a right to repair’ and ‘a right to reuse’ could be implemented [in Ireland] to reduce waste as a result of planned obsolescence,” Mr Leddin added.
Circular Economy Strategy
Separately, Minister of State with responsibility for the circular economy Ossian Smyth also launched Ireland's first Whole of Government Circular Economy Strategy.
The days of extracting virgin natural resources, making things with them and then throwing them away must come to an end, Mr Smyth said. “The transition to a circular economy has a key role to play in climate action – 45 per cent of our emissions are directly related to producing goods.
“Reducing the quantity of natural resources that we use and waste also reduces pressure on the quality of our air, soils and water, and creates sustainable employment around the country,” he added.
People understand saving energy and being energy efficient are critical for the climate, Mr Smyth said. “Now, we need to think this way about our material resources, like food, metals, plastic, concrete. A circular economy shows us how we can do this.”
The strategy provided a clear policy signal across the public and private sectors that “circularity belongs at the heart of sustainability”, he said.
The strategy will use policy tools such as green public procurement as well as supporting circular economy practices across the public sector. It will be supported by an education and awareness campaign for individuals, households, communities, and the public and private sectors.
In time, it will include detailed measures and sectoral roadmaps for priority areas such as construction, consumer goods, transport, procurement, agriculture and food, he confirmed.