1 – Citizen Engagement in the Circular Economy

This is Part 1 of the input into the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment’s Waste Advisory Group consultation process on the circular economy by Feasta member Féidhlim Harty.

Following are my responses to the questions raised by the department (in italics below) for consideration as part of the first meeting:

Transition to a circular economy will require action from all sectors of society. Members of the Advisory Group are influential representatives of a wide variety of interests and sectors. What role can you and/or your organisation play in engaging citizens in the roll-out of a Waste Action Plan in a Circular Economy?

The sector I represent is the Irish Environmental Network, and specifically Feasta, the Foundation for The Economics of Sustainability, within the IEN. There are plenty people who are active and engaged with this issue (of wishing to promote more circularity of resource use within society) in the organisations of which I am a part, however one of the major obstacles to greater engagement by citizens is a distinct impression that input is unwanted and unwelcome at government level.

As a local example, the recent Clare Climate Adaptation Plan was aired for consultation; an involved process was hosted by a collective of local groups with an active interest and a lot of expertise in this area. A submission was then filed with the Local Authority. The final Plan was published with no changes whatsoever, which was very disheartening to us all. At national level the Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019 appears, whether intentionally or otherwise, to actively curtail citizen involvement in planning decisions.

The role I can best offer in this advisory group is to highlight the enthusiasm for positive change that is present in the country and the great feeling of frustration and anger that participation is not more constructive, effective and democratic. There needs to be a consistent message from the department and across all levels of government in Ireland: we invite your submissions and we are willing to take these on board and make changes in direction as a result of the feedback offered.

Effecting behavioural change will require that we encourage positive practices and behaviours while also seeking to discourage and/or prohibit others: how do we ensure an appropriate mix?

Here we need to shift the reward systems. Currently we subsidise fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging industries to the tune of over €4bn per year. If this money was stopped in the morning, and diverted instead to environmentally constructive endeavours we would immediately see a sea-change in our climate and biodiversity trajectories. Public education will only ever play a secondary role in behavioural change if the reward systems are stacked in favour of a waste-generating linear economy of funded fossil fuels, the raw material for plastics.

Thinking about how to effect a national transition to a more circular economy and the specific waste related elements, what are the main citizen engagement challenges in your view?

When changes to subsidies are made (item 2 above), some products and services will become more expensive and some lower cost – as the rewards shift from environmentally destructive to environmentally regenerative industries and endeavours. It is important to explain to the general public the connection between the changes in pricing and the wider environmental emergency. The issue of water charging became so politically charged because it was viewed partly as a preparation for the sale of a public resource.

One way to carry public opinion is to ensure that the rising price of fossil fuels, and all of the products and services on which they are based, is matched by a dividend which is clearly visible and directly attributable to the fossil fuel price rises. Feasta’s Cap and Share model proposes a reducing cap on the amount of fossil fuels that can be imported or extracted (in line with the requirements of emissions reductions required by the IPCC to avert tipping point scenarios in global climate breakdown). Secondly, energy companies bid for the rights to import or extract the limited amount available, and the price inevitably rises as a result. However this is not a tax, it is a dividend distributed to the general public or a public investment programme. The result is a rise in the price of energy-heavy products and services with a relative fall in the price of low-energy or zero-energy equivalents. Thus the price changes remain very visible to the general public and the end result clearly a net gain for the environment and circular economy, and a clear reward system to engage fully with pursuing those products and services that encourage greater energy savings and circularity.

Given the ongoing challenges in tackling climate breakdown how do we best connect individual waste management practices and behaviours with mitigating the effects of climate change?

Rather than focusing on the promotion of altruistic behaviours (however ultimately beneficial to people) we urgently need to change policy so that the short term financial reward systems directly setter consumer decisions towards climate-safe options and purchases.

To take just one example; at present we are in the situation where it is often considerably cheaper to fly or drive than to take a boat or public transport respectively. Public education is important, but must be accompanied by policies that permit people to avoid being penalised for pursuing the more ecologically sustainable path.

How do we translate the concept of a circular economy into meaningful, practical actions for households, businesses, individuals?

The main focus of this process must be on shifts in policy. Households, businesses and individuals will follow the reward systems set out.

Do you have specific examples of successful citizen engagement initiatives from Ireland or elsewhere in recent years? What made them successful? What can we learn?

A number of highly effective examples come to mind; chiefly the plastic bag levy, which has effectively removed plastic bags from every ditch and hedgerow in the country, without ever even needing to appealing to people’s altruistic side. Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to have such a measure, and it has been to our great credit.

The smoking ban in public places had similar success. It was effective almost overnight, and although contentious in some limited quarters, it is another example of being ahead of the curve globally.

The success of these was a clear, direct policy implementation and a shift in the reward systems: cash savings in the case of plastic bags; and prosecutions for the premises owner in the case of smoking. Imagine how quickly littering would change if the manufacturers of the litter were prosecuted instead of those who dump it. It would simply be designed out of the supply chain. Littering is not simply sweet wrappers on the streets, it extends to microplastics from clothes washing and tyre wear on roads as well.

Perhaps the most effective way to encourage a circular economy is simply ban all single use plastic items; and indeed all single use items per se (since the energy and resource input needed are high regardless of raw material origin). That would immediately create a market for returnables and closed loop resource cycling.

To support informed decision-making by the general public on all matters waste related how do we ensure a more consistent, environmentally sustainable message?

Environmental literacy needs support at all levels; in school, third level education, workplaces, media, in advertising and at government level. The thrust of our current narrative is towards economic growth, even at the direct expense of a safe or habitable natural environment. This pursuit of economic expansion is the main focus of education, most forms of employment, the main media message and the main narrative in government.

As a specific measure, we must tackle greenwashing so that people are not further confused by the mixed messages that exist in the media. The Advertising Standards Authority must be tasked with the role of ensuring that environmentally destructive technologies, such as cars for example, are not permitted to be called eco-friendly. Hybrids and lithium battery technologies do not qualify as eco-friendly, they are merely very marginally less ecologically destructive than petrol or diesel.

Further, government policy must lead with a clear environmental message that underlies the seriousness of threat to life posed by the current climate and biodiversity crises. To deliver a consistent, environmentally sustainable message we must first examine the underlying assumptions in the value systems of government. If economic growth remains our main driving motivation, then we are in grave danger of disappointing the children and young people who are striking and protesting for meaningful climate action. Either we believe that the International Panel on Climate Change findings are correct and that the measures needed are indeed a matter of life or death for many millions of humans and other species, or we deny that there is validity in them and carry on with business as usual. Then if we decide that action is needed, we need to transpose the urgency of the IPCC message into every government department at ever level in order to drive the changes that are needed.

Continue to section 2 – plastics and packaging waste
Index page of report

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