Planet screams high time to embrace circular economy

Strong regulation to reduce packaging and other waste needed immediately

We can no longer rely on those with the energy, the will power and the pocketbook to go minimal waste. We need bold policy.

We can no longer rely on those with the energy, the will power and the pocketbook to go minimal waste. We need bold policy.

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The UN World Meteorological Organisation says there is a 50/50 chance of the average annual temperature temporarily rising above the 1.5 degree threshold during at least one of the next five years.

Meanwhile in Ireland the primary legislation intended to create the framework for a circular economy is weaving its way through the Oireachtas.

But what does a circular economy have to do with climate change? A lot. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates climate action efforts such as moving to renewables and greater efficiency can only address 55 per cent of emissions. The remaining human-caused greenhouse gases come from “making stuff”.

Simply put, the circular economy is about making stuff last, not wasting stuff, and not packaging stuff in other stuff that will be used only once and thrown away, with the aim of reducing our wasted resources and emissions. For “stuff”, see textiles, food, packaging, electronics, cars and construction.

Arthur Miller was lamenting built-in obsolescence when he wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949. The idea of circularity in the production of materials has also been around for some time. Kenneth E Boulding talks about the need for it in his 1966 essay, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. He noted, “Primitive men, and to a large extent also men of the early civilisations, imagined themselves to be living on a virtually illimitable plane. There was almost always somewhere beyond the known limits of human habitation, and over a very large part of the time that man has been on Earth, there has been something like a frontier.”

Consumption rates

I wonder if, writing this nearly 60 years ago, Boulding envisaged just how long it would take us to get our heads around the finite? When it comes to packaging, for instance, from the picnic scene in Mad Men, when the immaculate Betsy Draper shakes the rubbish off their picnic blanket onto the grass in 1960s America, to the kid in your class in the high unemployment 1980s who told you it was okay to litter, because it gave someone a job. From thinking of litter as a blight on our amenity to our slo-mo enlightenment around the damage it is doing to Earth’s oceans, biodiversity and climate, and our health.

To meet our 2025 and 2030 EU packaging waste reduction targets, we need not only to recycle better, but also to dramatically reduce our use of single-use stuff

Ireland has one of the highest material consumption rates in the OECD. We produce over one million tonnes of packaging waste and one million tonnes of food waste each year. In order to meet our 2025 and 2030 EU packaging waste reduction targets, we need not only to recycle better, but also to dramatically reduce our use of single-use stuff.

But our way of consumption is so ingrained and therefore change is difficult, unless something forces our hand. Like, say, a pandemic? We learned a lot about changing our behaviour during the last two years, but as far as packaging goes, we seriously fell of the wagon. How about the threat of extinction? John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, said in March at the Doha forum, “it’s not a question of if a crisis is coming, rather how bad it will be . . . [but] we are not yet responding globally in a way that manifests that we care that it is existential’.

The problem is that, individually and systemically, we have fallen hard for convenience. Addictive as Zanax, and more widely prescribed, we’re completely hooked on consumption.

Minimal waste

We can no longer rely on those with the energy, the will power and the pocketbook to go minimal waste. We are practically and financially incapable of decoupling growth from destruction without a massive systemic change. In order to break our habit and to create a circular economy, we need bold policy. Experts recommend telling your friends and family when you decide to give up smoking. The Circular Economy Bill is us telling ourselves we are going to detox our consumption. It puts our circular economy and food waste strategies on a statutory footing, includes a requirement to create a ring-fenced circular economy fund and gives the Minister power to prohibit and create levies on food and beverage packaging.

The “latte levy” is a great headline-grabber but the phrase is enough to put the fear into most coffee shop owners

The “latte levy” is a great headline-grabber but the phrase is enough to put the fear into most coffee shop owners. As a business person trapped in an environmentalist’s body (or vice versa?), I’m used to feeling tortured: we need strong regulation that rapidly reduces our packaging and other waste in every sector, we need to avoid any unnecessary delay in bringing in waste-reduction measures such as France’s ban on plastic on certain fruit and vegetables, its requirement that 20 per cent of floor space in large supermarkets be dedicated to refill, or its requirement that big franchises must offer reusables for sit-in. On the other hand, there must be support for businesses – and local economies – as we make a transition that can separate growth from destruction, support that recognises the upstream benefits of circling back, so that businesses can say no to all single-use, including the waste that voters don’t see.

Angela Ruttledge is campaign lead for Sick of Plastic, a joint Voice and Friends of the Earth initiative, and co-owner of two Dublin restaurants

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