Maryam Madani investigates how Irish businesses are moving towards implementing a circular economy
Planned obsolescence has been around for a long time: from the infamous light bulb cartel in the 1920s that set the lifespan limit of lightbulbs to 1,000 hours when the Centennial Light bulb has proven it can do much more- to the slowing down of Apple’s older iPhones and the nature of the tech industry itself. Our throwaway culture has accelerated the degradation of our planet. But an alternative economic model does exist and may become a last-ditch solution.
What is the idea of the circular economy? The best way to understand it is to compare it to the linear economy, our current model, where natural resources are taken from the earth, produced into goods which are sold and then discarded as waste. In a circular economy, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is reused and put back into circulation, not merely by recycling but through innovative changes in the way products are designed and the way we sell them.
For example, instead of the consumer owning a product, the company would retain ownership and lease out the product to the user. You would pay for a certain number of washes instead of a washing machine, or light instead of a light bulb. The company would pay for maintenance costs and at the end-of-life, would take back the product, break up the parts and reuse them to make more models, recycling the rest.
This method has so far been shown to be beneficial for businesses as it is more expensive to keep using virgin resources than to reuse these substances and keep them in circulation. In a report by Veolia, it was shown that a switch to a circular economy could create €1.65 billion of GDP in Ireland.
Yes, most H&M stores in Ireland now have a recycling bank, and will pay you €5 if you bring in a bag of clothes to be recycled. H&M use some of the recycled materials to create their garments
In the second week of February, the Circular Economy Club held its global public Mapping Week, in 67 countries, including the UK, US and Ireland. At the Irish mapping session in UCD, participants put together a list of circular businesses, start-ups and initiatives which will eventually be added and produced into a map to be released before April. All these case studies will help researchers in the area to make sense of this new territory.
The switchover is already happening. In 2015, the “EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy” was released, and the 2018 Circular Economy Package has a focus on eliminating plastic waste.
In his report, “Moving Towards the Circular Economy in Ireland”, Dr. Simon O’Rafferty said that: “As a small, open economy in the EU, Ireland’s move towards a circular economy will continue to be shaped by EU policy and a shift in international corporate practices. These practices are in evidence through examples such as Dell running a recycling scheme for the plastic in its hardware; the French carmaker Renault collecting used parts for manufacture, and the Swedish chain H&M recycling clothing.”
At the Circular Economy Club mapping event, Aisling Byrne, the founder of Nu Wardrobe, described her own fashion initiative to us as “an online clothes’ sharing platform and our aim is to make sustainable fashion affordable and accessible and to reduce garment waste”.
She started it in college after a trip to India where she “saw the darker side of the fast fashion industry”: “The working conditions that people would be working in the factories, the local pollution and environmental implications, and I guess it was the first time that I just felt I’d just really been lied to.”
They started holding swap shops in colleges like Trinity and UCD, and from there developed their website on which users swap or borrow garments. Technically this makes it closer to an example of the sharing economy than the circular one, though the two are linked: “What I think people look for a lot is a different way to buy, when actually we need to be more creative than that if we’re going to reduce our consumption altogether” and “think of alternative ways that you can access fashion that’s already in circulation.”
Traditionally, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the individual to make environmentally friendly choices- use less, buy less, contribute less waste. The zero waste movement as a lifestyle choice has taken firm root recently, led by figures such as Laura Singer, who has managed to fit all the waste she has produced in the last three years into a mason jar. Zero waste tips include bringing your own spork and coffee mug to avoid using throwaway plastic forks and coffee cups. You can buy a compostable toothbrush made from bamboo by Irish company VirtueBrush, and even invest in reusable period pads or moon-cups, or make your own toothpaste from baking soda.
But ethical consumer choices can only go so far. The problem is a systemic one. The circular economy would take the pressure off the individual to reduce their waste. Eliminating our waste problem will require a radical restructuring of the way we produce and use goods, but the process can be an exciting and creative spark to innovation.