The language used in the announcement from the Department of the Environment on Tuesday evening was not of the type that grabs headlines, with talk of a general scheme, a circular economy and a “whole-of-Government” approach.
However, the Circular Economy Bill 2021, after it becomes law and after it starts to be implemented, will change everything – from the way a product is made, used and reused, and to the way it can and must be recycled.
By 2030, if this works, the average member of the Irish public will pay homage to the circular economy routinely by buying products that last, that can be reused and repaired, and that leave no waste behind when they are finished.
"Our relationships with products and services will be unrecognisable in 10 years," according to Dr Sarah Miller, chief executive of the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, Dublin. "The very definition of 'consumer' will be a thing of the past.
“From product owner, we will become ‘product custodians’ as leasing, sharing and rental models go mainstream,” she says, predicting that an explosion will take place in the resale of products. Second-hand will become normal.
Second-hand clothing will replace fast fashion – not just on the high street, but online too, she forecasts: “Stores will be used for resale, repair, rental, refill and material recovery for products, food and technology.”
High-street stores, online retailers and manufacturers will have to invest in “reverse logistics”, where products can be returned seamlessly for reuse, while every other element of waste in the production cycle is removed too.
Carrot and stick
The changes will not come about by a mass conversion by the public to the green agenda, recycling experts argue. Instead, it will be a combination of the carrot and the stick.
Polluting products will cost more by way of penalties, levies and outright bans. It will happen, say its promoters, in much the same way that carbon taxes will wean us away from fossil fuels.
The cheaper choice must become the most environmentally-friendly choice.
None of this means it will be politically easy, because it will not be. It will be hard.
The words "circular economy", however, mean little to the public. Half of the members of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation admit that they have not a clue what it means.
However, the basic messages are clear. Currently, the world's population – mostly the richer parts, including Ireland – is using 50 per cent more natural resources each year than the Earth can produce.
Based on everything we know now, this will rise by a factor of three by 2050, even with all of the talk from companies about green agendas. So the “take, make, dispose” approach must end. Likewise, the habits of quickly-disposed products and the export of vast quantities of “waste” prompted by poor recycling infrastructure. Instead, all of this will have to be replaced by zero-waste stores with refill services.
The State’s record today is abysmal. Each year, we generate more than 1 million tonnes of food waste, resulting in a carbon bill, from this alone, of 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 .
Once created, the circular economy will break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation, says Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton, who wrote a report on the circular economy for the Committee on Climate Action.
With few illusions about the difficulties it will create for politicians, Bruton says: “It seeks to rethink supply chains in their entirety on this basis. We have to rethink how we make and use products from cradle to its grave.”
The Government’s legislation will try to thread together waste and climate plans; the national development plan, European Union waste directives, the State’s own purchasing habits.
The EU now accepts that climate change and sustainability targets cannot be met without the circular economy. The crisis being caused by plastic pollution entering human and animal food chains, especially, must be tackled.
So what could it mean for people’s daily lives? Imagine simple things first of all. Disposable plastics, such as coffee cups, will disappear. Shopping habits will be changed beyond recognition. The takeaway delivered to the home will come in reusable containers and be collected by the food outlet.
Households will have to get much better at waste segregation – a third of the waste currently put into green bins should not be there, while only a third of plastics being used in products can be recycled.
Every supermarket will stop selling products in plastic wrapping. Customers will bring reusable containers for fruit and vegetables, even cleaning agents, just as we now have become used to bringing reusable shopping bags.
Plastic bottles and aluminium cans will be collected by a deposit return system for recycling and reuse, while “rediscovery centres” will encourage reuse. Companies fitting out offices in second-hand furniture will become commonplace.
Stiff levies will deter sending rubbish for incineration, while companies that make such things as mattresses, paints or textiles will become responsible for them when such products reach the end of their useful lives.
Some good things are already happening. The rest is “doable”, says Mindy O’Brien of the Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment, if the State taxes the bad, encourages the good and backs the public’s right to reuse.
Some good examples can be copied, she says. Italy has a tax on virgin plastic used for packaging which encourages take-up of recycled plastic, and Germany has a container refill target of 70 per cent, she says.
Waste must be “designed out”, she argues, including so-called “forever chemicals” such as PFAS used by food manufacturers to create a waterproof and greaseproof barrier when combined with paper or cardboard.
Repak recycling company chief executive Séamus Clancy says the State has some advantages as it has solid data about waste since it is the only EU country with a chip and pin, pay-by-weight system for households.
“We have to reduce consumption and do things better with the resources we have,” he says, though the State being part of a small island without economies of scales faces challenges.
Companies will quickly learn that green means brass, says reuse specialist Dr Miller, who says that washing machine manufacturers will charge by wash – maintaining ownership of the product, but also responsibility for its reuse.
This will save the customer money, since maintenance, repair and replacement will be the manufacturer’s responsibility, thus encouraging them to build products that last. Built-in obsolescence will itself become obsolete.
“These models will create additional jobs locally in electronic repair and maintenance,” says Miller, “Rather than only visiting stores to shop, people will visit the high street to rent, repair and reuse.
“Rather than only visiting homes to drop off products, logistics companies will collect packaging and items that were rented or are in need of repair,” she adds.