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Squaring up to the circular economy

Irish businesses are getting resourceful with waste in a range of sectors including food, fashion and tech

A circular economy aims to reduce waste by keeping products, components and materials in use for as long as possible, continually creating value. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

A circular economy aims to reduce waste by keeping products, components and materials in use for as long as possible, continually creating value. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire


This summer marks a whole new departure for the VivaGreen Group. The Deansgrange business, which began in 1999, specialises in environmentally friendly products.

“We watch trends, identify problems that consumers have, and develop solutions,” explains Sean O’Haire, its marketing executive.

The environment is at the heart of everything it makes, from plant-based moss killers to biodegradable golf divots and paper lunch bags.

This summer it is taking things even further, ensuring that its Tru Eco range of environmentally friendly household detergents become part of the “circular economy” too.

The Tru Eco range sells in SuperValu stores nationwide but its store in Greystones is set to be the first in the country to introduce a Tru Eco refill station.

From June customers have been able to refill their detergent bottles at a specially made dispenser in-store.

It saves consumers money as the savings to the company’s packaging bills are passed on, while the planet gets a breather thanks to reduced manufacturing and waste.

“We could see it is what consumer wanted,” says O’Haire. “There has been a massive seachange in relation to the circular economy. It’s moved mainstream.”

The traditional economic model is based on a linear “take-make-waste” approach which is costly for business and bad for the environment. It relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy.

A circular economy, by contrast, aims to reduce waste – entirely if possible – by keeping products, components and materials in use for as long as possible, continually creating value.

Training programme

For businesses looking to achieve this, it can be hard to know where to start.  Management at Viva Green participated in MODOS, a circular economy training programme for businesses that is a joint initiative of Dublin City Council and the Regional Waste Management Planning Offices.

The programme, which is delivered virtually, combines training and mentoring to help businesses reassess both their supply chain and consumer offerings, in order to become part of the circular economy.

MODOS is suitable for all businesses but is particularly relevant for those in construction, food, retail, manufacturing, textiles and fashion, electronics, plastics and packaging.

The fashion industry has dirtied its bib somewhat when it comes to pollution, with fast fashion a particular offender

Paul Maher and Anne Galligan were early adoptees of the circular economy. They co-founded IT business MicroPro in 1991, determined to reduce the amount of waste in the tech sector by developing modular computers in which all parts could be easily replaced and upgraded if needed, rather than heading for landfill.

When their computers reach the end of their life, they repurpose them as cash registers, while the glass goes to make emergency lighting systems.

From there they developed Iameco, a range of sustainably smart laptops and tablets made from wood. These award-winning devices don’t even use glue or veneer, but cabinetry skills.

With Covid having led to global shortages of computer chips and other components, Iameco simply can’t keep up with demand. “It has absolutely gone mainstream. We’re getting more than 1000 emails a month about Iameco but unfortunately can’t produce at all right now,” says Maher.

Fast fashion

The fashion industry has dirtied its bib somewhat when it comes to pollution, with fast fashion a particular offender.

It’s a problem Rónán Ó Dálaigh designed his business, Thriftify, to remedy, in 2018.

Just as someone can do a google search to find a particular garment in the shops, such as a special pair of trainers, Thriftify is an online platform that enables consumers to search online for a particular item in charity shops right across the country.

It helps consumers to find and reuse goods that would otherwise go into landfill, and it generates much needed revenues for charities. Thanks to its use of machine learning technology, the platform enables the charity shop to instantly assess the true value of the goods donated to them, rather than risk missing out on value by relying on gut instinct.

One person’s outmoded garment is someone else’s fashion find. Already successful here, and employing 24 people, Thriftify recently launched in the UK, where Ó Dálaigh foresees greatest growth potential.

“At the moment every time we shop we have a negative impact on the environment. Yet there is enough clothing in existence to clothe the next six generations,” says Ó Dálaigh. “We can make fashion circular.”

Food redistribution

Food waste is another big offender, and one which Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien tackled when they set up FoodCloud, in 2013. It’s a food redistribution solution that seeks to reduce both food waste and food poverty, by ensuring that perfectly good food that is nearing the end of its shelf life, has damaged packaging or is otherwise surplus to requirement is redirected to people in need.

It is reckoned that around one-third of all food produced is wasted

The social enterprise currently handles 3,000 tones of food a year, and saw a major increase in stocks during the early part of the pandemic when the food service sector was forced to close. Demand was up too, as people isolated.

Ensuring food doesn’t go to waste isn’t just about saving production costs, but about the fact that rotting food also emits methane, a greenhouse gas that fuels global warming even faster than CO2.

Yet food waste is generated at every stage of the supply chain, from small vegetables left in fields, to wonky veg that don’t make it past quality control, to bought food that languishes on shelves at home, until it is thrown out. It is reckoned that around one-third of all food produced is wasted.

Regulatory pressures are increasingly coming to bear on the issue. The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to mitigate climate change, has a central role in the new Green Deal Covid recovery plan.

The Government’s Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy is driving change too.

Grant scheme

It identifies food waste as a priority waste stream and commits to halving it by 2030. The recent launch of a new circular economy innovation grant scheme should help.

In June Lidl announced it would become the first large nationwide supermarket to establish a circular economy strategy, helping to fuel its logistics chain by using food waste from its 209 stores on the island.

It works with Trim-based Food Surplus Management (FSM), which will collect the retailer’s food waste – and customer’s recycling deposits – directly from stores as well as from regional distribution centres.

The food waste will then be converted to renewable bio-methane and then used to fuel the fleet responsible for collecting this waste from Lidl’s stores and regional distribution centres – reducing carbon emission per truck by up to 93 per cent.

The move towards a circular economy is giving rise to opportunities for new businesses too.

Pet food

When friends and dog lovers Portia Quinn and Robin Thompson went looking for a pet food that could help dogs that were obese or suffering from aching joints, they discovered that 80 per cent of the dog food in Ireland imported and that there was a gap in the market for a premium Irish brand.

Further research indicated that not alone was fish a great source of the kind of nutrients dogs need, but that by using fish cuts that don’t make it to the consumer market, such as fish skins, heads and frames, the pair could save vital nutrients from going to waste.

They then worked with Teagasc and BIM, the fish board, to perfect a health, low carbon impact, pet food production technique. “We wanted to use minimum processing, as processing takes a lot of the goodness out, so we did it the Viking way – air dried,” explains Quinn.

The result was Harley & Marley Planet Loving Pets, which launched earlier this year. Such was the demand that the pair have since developed a separate range for supermarket chain Aldi, Dogs Love Fish.

Squaring the circle

Call it squaring the circle: “Around 30 per cent of fish is wastage,” says Quinn. “Yet we can make nutritious and delicious-tasting healthy pet food from it.”

And circularity is good for business, according to Sinéad Healy, sustainability manager with Dublin Chamber. “For many businesses, reducing emissions and carbon reporting is mostly considered a challenge as they ready to comply with low carbon requirements, the circular economy is a space in the sustainability landscape where businesses can really find opportunity and innovate through designing products and services that last, that can be repurposed throughout their life cycle. Irish businesses that are designing waste out of their products and services from the very beginning are taking advantage of the circular economy now and are responding to what will only be an increasing demand from supply chains, consumers, and clients in this ‘new frontier’. These businesses that are building circular foundations are going to be more resilient in an EU environment that is supportive of circular practices.”