Economic thinking comes full circle

These days it’s not just local co-operatives that are promoting upcycling and reuse of goods. Multinationals, the EU and the World Economic Forum are also embracing the circular economy

More and more of us are realising that we have too much stuff: we’ve bought too many clothes and too much furniture, kitchen gadgets and even food. Now, in response, there are ways for us to reuse, recycle, share or give away what we don’t need like never before.

There are still the vintage markets, car-boot sales, charity shops and even scrapyards that some people have long used. But towns and cities in the UK now also have "surplus cafes" and "surplus supper clubs" that cook and serve, at modest prices, out-of-date supermarket food. Closer to home, repair cafes and upcycling projects such as the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, in north Dublin, make new clothes from remnants, freshen up furniture and recycle bicycles.

All of these co-operatives, social enterprises and small businesses are part of the circular economy. And alongside these local initiatives serious moves are being made towards the circular economy by big car and clothes manufacturers and by local and national governments across the world.

"The old linear economy model for raw materials is based on take, make, use and dispose, but the new, circular economy model is based on take, make, use, reuse, collect, recycle and reprocess," says Jonathan Derham of the Environmental Protection Agency.


The circular economy embraces sustainable consumption and production. It is “really sustainable development dressed up in a frock of economics, with an integrated economic perspective across the whole life cycle of the product or service”, says Derham.

The circular economy features cradle-to-cradle manufacturing – which is to say that goods are made and then, at the end of their first life, dismantled and remade into new products. It’s a model that some multinationals have embraced. The US computer firm Dell runs a recycling scheme for the plastic in its hardware; the French carmaker Renault collects used parts for remanufacture; and the Swedish chain H&M recycles clothing.

The circular economy also espouses a production process that views resources as scarce, valuable and expensive, placing emphasis on durability, reparability and long-term investment.

Economic behemoths such as the European Union and the World Economic Forum are embracing the circular economy with gusto.

You know about the Oscars: now the World Economic Forum has the Circulars (, an award scheme for businesses operating in the circular economy. And the organisation no longer views environmental protection as a hindrance to economic progress. Its definition of "sustainable competitiveness" is "institutions, polices and factors that allow a nation [and companies] to remain productive in the long term while ensuring social and environmental sustainability".

The European Union views the circular economy as being able to boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate jobs. Last December the European Commission passed a circular economy-package that included laws to discourage the sending of waste to landfill and to encourage recycling. It also included more than €650 million under its Horizon programme and €5.5 billion in structural funds to reduce food waste, develop standards for secondary raw materials – which is to say materials taken from waste streams and reused – and promote ecodesign and sustainable manufacturing.

“Our planet and our economy cannot survive if we continue with the take, make, use and throw-away approach. We need to retain precious resources and fully exploit all the economic value within them,” said Frans Timmermans, the commission’s first vice-president.

“The circular economy is about reducing waste and protecting the environment, but is also about a profound transformation of the way our entire economy works.”

Tidy town: Cashel's plan to become Ireland's first zero-waste community

The Co Tipperary town of Cashel is hoping to become Ireland's first zero-waste community. The pilot project will look at ways in which waste can be used a resource as well as at ways to prevent its creation in the first place.

“Firstly, we will do a waste characterisation study of the town, looking at the waste generated by businesses, schools and households,” says Pauline McDonogh of the Southern Region Waste Management Office.

“This study will then look at what alternatives can be found for single-use items like coffee cups and plastic bottles.

“We’ll see whether we can encourage all outlets to offer a discount to those who bring a reusable cup. We’ll also look at how food surpluses from hotels, retailers and food producers can be donated to charities.”

The aim is for Cashel to follow in the footsteps of more than 200 zero-waste towns and cities worldwide. Members of Cashel Tidy Towns, the Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce have already responded positively.

“People feel good about their wheelie bins and recycling, but having less waste will be harder to achieve,” says McDonogh. “We will have an open debate with community groups, businesses and householders and introduce them to the Environmental Protection Agency’s green business, green hospitality and green healthcare projects.

“We will also invite product-design students to see what new ecodesigned products – particularly from plastics which aren’t recyclable – can be created from waste.”

Mindy O’Brien of the environmental charity Voice adds: “Earth has limited natural resources, but these resources – metals and minerals – have unlimited potential in the circular economy.

“Ireland has made huge strides in recycling programmes, and zero waste is the next logical step. With the new pay-by-weight charges coming into effect in July, zero waste will make economic sense as well as environmental sense.”

Zero-waste projects are already doing well in Scotland, Wales, Italy, Spain and Slovenia, as well as in San Francisco, which O’Brien visited recently.

“In San Francisco they have a zero-waste office in local government. They have banned the sale of plastic bottles at public events and banned the use of polystyrene. Takeaway food is sold in compostable containers, which reduces the creation of plastic in the first place.”

O’Brien says the Government has a role to play in buying materials that stimulate a zero-waste economy. Only when items such as compostable containers are affordable for retailers will they become a real alternative. If large public bodies buy into these alternatives, they will become cheaper.

“I’d also love to do projects such as repair cafes and leasing schemes, where white goods such as washing machines are leased rather than sold and returned for remodelling at the end of their use.

“Towns like Cashel are also good-size communities for tool-lending libraries, skill-sharing and upcycling classes. There is a good recycling amenity in Cashel, too, so there’s great potential.”