By Bronwyn Slater
Are you one of those people who brings your own resusable cup with you to coffee shops, or have you ever rented an outfit for a wedding? If so, then you’re participating in the circular economy. I’m old enough to remember bringing empty glass bottles back to my local shop and getting a few pennies in return for them. In those days lemonade and soda only came in glass bottles less than a litre in size – not the super-sized plastic PET bottles we have nowadays. But that’s another story!
The term ‘circular economy’ has been bandied about a lot in recent years. It’s a term coined by round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen McArthur. Her charity, the Ellen McArthur Foundation, seeks to promote and support the circular economy – a system in which everything that is manufactured and sold is either returnable, recyclable, resusable or repairable, and waste is eliminated.
At present we have a linear economy where raw materials are taken from nature, products are created and used for a limited time, then thrown away. In a circular economy products are designed with circularity in mind so that every component can be recovered and reused in some form. Circular principles can be applied to almost everything – from fashion to cars, buildings, electronics, furniture, food and much more.
Many of today’s big fashion brands are starting to take recycling and reusability seriously, and many clothing rental companies have come onto the scene. Stella McCartney is taking part in the Make Fashion Circular initiative and is now Cradle to Cradle certified (a system of scoring brands for their commitment to the circular economy). High street shoe chain Schuh allows customers to bring back their old shoes, and John Lewis is trialling a system that allows people to sell back their old clothes. Mud Jeans customers can buy or rent jeans, and eventually return them to MUD to be recycled. Some retailers are providing clothing repair services.
Electronics and Computers
Dell is one computer manufacturer where products are designed with the environment and recyclability in mind. The company tries to design out waste through a product’s entire life cycle, and products are built with disassembly in mind. Labelling parts also helps recyclers handle them efficiently when a product reaches the end of life. Modular design allows parts to be swapped out and upgraded easily, increasing the useful life of products. Some products can be refurbished and resold, while others can be broken down to separate useful components out, and the rest is recycled.
If all computers were to use industry-standard plugs, sockets and sizes for various critical components, it would create a vibrant second-hand market for parts. And such a market can capture significant value that would otherwise be wasted. The EU is working on harmonising the design of digital devices, and they have already standardised the design of mobile phone chargers.
At present, houses and buildings are demolished and the waste ends up in landfill. In a circular economy, houses would be constructed in a way that allows recovery and reuse of various components such as windows, doors, flooring materials, kitchen and bathroom units and fittings. Cement and steel could be substituted for materials that are easier to recycle and reuse. In this way a lot of construction and demolition waste could be diverted from landfill and reused, reducing the need for virgin materials. In 2020 the EU produced a paper entitled ‘Circular Economy Principles for Building Design’. The paper aims to help reduce the environmental impacts and lifecycle costs of buildings. The target audience is the construction industry, policy makers and stakeholders along the construction industry supply chain.
IKEA is one company that is taking circular principles to heart. Some of their furniture is made from 100% recycled wood and plastic, and some furniture is modular so that pieced can be added or taken away as needed. They encourage their customers to repair and reuse their furniture, or pass them onto other people or charities when they are no longer needed. The company also allows customers to return their furniture to their shops if they are no longer required. The company will then upcycle or reuse the products or components of the products – so these products are seen by the company as a useful resource.
A circular economy of sorts has always applied to the car industry, and about 75% of a car’s material at end of life can be recovered. The EU’s End-of-Life Vehicles Directive has now set a target of 95% recyclability per vehicle per year.
Car parts such as engines, wheels, tyres, batteries, catalytic converters, electronic modules, alternators, starter motors, transmissions and infotainment systems are all removed, and can be resold if they are in good condition or refurbished. The remaining shell is then crushed flat and sent to an industrial shredder or hammer mill, and the metal is sold to steel mills for recycling.
Terracyle has launched a project called ‘Loop’ which aims to revolutionise the way customers buy products. Packaging is owned by the seller and is collected after use. Some of the large supermarket chains such as Tesco have signed up to trial the new circular system.
Young people will find this hard to believe, but back in the early 70s most people rented their TVs. Renting items means that you are not responsible for the repair or disposal of an item, and if it breaks down the company will replace it with another. Car rental is another example, and it is predicted that in the future we will rent rather than own cars. Many things that people currently buy could be rented. For example, electrical products, DIY and gardening tools, computers and printers, toys, games and clothes. By renting the same product to several clients, manufacturers can increase revenues per unit. It also means that fewer items are produced, as each item is shared. So renting is another aspect of the circular economy because it reduces production, thereby reducing reliance on natural resources. Products are repaired rather than thrown away, and products are kept in circulation for as long as possible. The rental company is responsible for the product at the end of its life, and can work with the manufacturer when it comes to recycling, reuse and refurbishment.
We need a circular economy
The way we live in Ireland and in most European countries is unsustainable, depleting the world’s limited resources and creating ever more waste. If everyone in the world used as many resources as Europeans, we would need 2.6 Earths to support our population. The “take, make, waste” model cannot continue, it has to change. The EU has now adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan – one of the main blocks of the European Green Deal.
Circular strategies could also keep the planet well below a 2°C trajectory because it would result in lower emissions. There is a clear business case for individual companies too. Manufacturing firms in the EU spend on average about 40% on materials, so closed loop models could increase their profitability, while at the same time offering some protection from resource price fluctuations.
For citizens, the circular economy will provide high-quality, functional and safe products, which are efficient and affordable, last longer and are designed for reuse, repair, and high-quality recycling. It could also help create more jobs. The European Environmental Bureau suggests that expanding the reuse, repair and recycling sectors alone can create over 200,000 new jobs in the EU.
What can I do?
- Buy good quality items that last longer.
- Buy second hand or do an online search for used items.
- Join a zero waste group online or do a search online for organisations and groups that accept second hand items.
- Look for repair shops in your city or town.
- Donate your clothes, books and bric-a-brac to charity.
- Have electronics repaired, bring them back to the shop, or bring them to your local civic amenity site.
- Buy a compost bin.
- Try to avoid packaging if possible, and recycle any packaging you have.
- Rent if you don’t need to buy.
- Look for shops which accept the return of old shoes and clothes.
- Avoid food waste.
- Don’t throw anything away, there is always someone who can use it.