8 – Waste Actions in a Circular Economy

This is the Part 8 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 for consideration as part of the final meeting:

What are the top 3 waste management policy initiatives required to support a transition to a Circular Economy in Ireland?

The policy initiatives needed to achieve a circular economy are not related to waste management. They cannot be. There cannot be both waste and a circular economy. That said there are distinct policies that are needed to move towards a circular economy, outlined as follows:

1 – Charge appropriately for goods and services, so that the cost of repairing the damage done by resource extraction and the cost of clean-up of wastes generated are fully accounted for and routed to repair and clean-up so there is net zero impact on the wider natural environment. Thus the cost of high energy goods and services would carry within them the full cost of appropriate reinstatement of the fossil fuel extraction sites, clean-up of inevitable spillages/leakages, full climate mitigation and commensurate climate sequestration measures. Similarly products like plastic-fibre clothing such as polyester, nylon etc. would include the cost of micro-plastic filtration on washing machines and sewage treatment systems; and such changes would be implemented.

2 – Systematically remove products and materials from the supply chain that cannot be readily, completely and safely repaired, reused, reconditioned, recycled and redeployed for gainful use within society. Over and over again the manufacturers of products – from tobacco to Roundup to fossil fuels – have adamantly promoted their wares as being safe to use while they have been anything but. Similarly in an era when microplastics have become ubiquitous, when biocides and synthetic chemicals can be found in the bloodstream of every person in the country, when production of new products outstrips our capacity to recycle the waste it generates – it’s time to call a halt at the production stage and start to close those loops legally rather than leaving that responsibility with behavioural change programmes which are inevitably funded at tiny fractions of the advertising budgets of the companies that produce the pollution.

3 – Place a cap on global fossil fuel extraction; reducing year on year in line with IPCC targets (currently set at c.7.5% per annum). Such a cap is a very very straightforward way to ensure that carbon emissions are held in check. Global governments have so far failed utterly to grasp this particular nettle – but we cannot have a circular economy that is built on fossil energy. It is complete greenwash to suggest otherwise. As this discussion sheet clearly implies in the introduction, change from business-as-usual is essential. This change must include a dramatic and immediate shift away from fossil energy sources.

How do we ensure that the Circular Economy is embedded into economic recovery in a post-Covid-19 context?

If we look to the recent Coronavirus for guidance on how to communicate it will tell us a lot. There needs to be a clear message: “1 – There is a threat; 2 – There are steps that can be taken to keep you and the people around you safe; 3 – This is what they are…”. Within this context, ecologically there is an immediate existential threat before us. To anybody who thinks about it at all this is crystal clear. There are definite steps that can be taken to keep us all safe. These steps include the following: Stop extracting fossil fuels; stop destroying natural habitats; stop placing poisons (either as intentional biocide applications or as unintentional pollutants) into the soil, air and water; carry out essential services such as the growing of food and supply of clean water in a way that regenerates soil, water and air by using existing tools such as silvopasture, agroforestry, holistic grazing and other regenerative agriculture techniques; stop non-essential activities to ensure that there are enough resources and energy for the essential services; carry out landscape regeneration and repair on every scale, from back gardens to whole bioregions. The Circular Economy will become an inevitable cog in the wider process of recovery out of pure necessity. Recovery along such lines may strike hard at the economy (or it may simply transform it into something healthier) but whether it does or not, if we don’t repair the natural world and natural processes on the planet then the planet simply won’t be in a fit state to carry us as a society, not to mind an economy.

This graphic from the Stockholm Resilience Centre shows the UN Global Goals in a way that clearly spells out the need to protect the biosphere in order to have a society; and to build society in order to have an economy. To look at many conventional policies, you’d think it was the other way around. What Corona has done is to give us a taste of action for the sake of protecting a population rather than for the promotion and protection of the economy. Now we need to step up that game exponentially and apply it to an ecological recovery in a just transition for all.


Image credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre.

What are the costs/benefits of introducing national performance targets for the following?

1 – Material streams such as food waste and textiles

Material streams are easy to measure at the point of sale through retail revenue reporting. Thus it is low cost to implement and would provide valuable insight into the flow of materials through the economy.

2 – Resource consumption

Resource consumption is perhaps the easiest of these options to measure, since the number of companies involved in resource extraction and mining is relatively small. There are two main categories here, which need to be treated very differently in terms of policy:

A. Firstly there are non-renewable resources, including coal, oil, gas, metals, stone and minerals. For circularity policy must aim towards a zero extraction rate for all of these in the relatively near future, relying instead on 100% reuse and recycling of existing materials. Thus measuring the flow of these materials at the point of consumption is essential, with an every decreasing cap placed on production at source as we shift to a circular economy.

B. Secondly there are the renewable resources, including sunlight-derived energy sources such as PV, wind, wave hydro and locally produced biomass; plant based textiles (such as cotton, wool, bamboo, hemp, linen etc.), plant based building materials (such as timber, bamboo, hemp, straw), other natural building materials (including stone and cob which can be entirely returned to the earth after use); and food crops. Measurement of these is not so easy or straightforward since they form the basis of output from gardens, farms, micro-generation initiatives etc. What is more important here than measurement, is to ensure that policy measures are supportive of ecological regeneration wherever renewable resources or cultivation is practiced. Thus, for example, silvopasture, agroforestry, farming-for-nature practices, holistic grazing management etc. are all recognised techniques for growing of food and materials where the process actively encourages regeneration of soils, sequestration of carbon and proliferation of biodiversity.

3 – Reuse and repair

Reuse and repair should be designed into product design for every product sold as a direct policy measure, a move that is being gradually introduced at EU level. However thorough measurement of reuse and repair may prove to be costly if it is embraced across society. Certainly reuse of outputs from one industry for use in the next is easily measurable due to the financial transaction paper-trail, as are reuse via charity shops, bring sites etc., but at household level reuse will ideally become so normal and natural that it will bypass economic notice and not be easily recorded. Nor is it necessary to be so, since the measure of a successful circular economy can be much more easily measured by watching the steady fall of inputs to the circular society it supports and then by watching the other ecological and social indicators move to a place of health, resilience and happiness.

4 – Contamination levels in municipal waste streams

First of all, there are no waste streams in a well developed circular economy. Perhaps if we start to relabel our resources at all levels of society and policy then we will stop ‘wasting’ them.

Secondly, as we have seen with Coronavirus, public participation rises when both the rationale and the requirements are clear. If the different material streams leaving our factories, businesses, farms and homes were seen to be the important resources that they are, and if the redirection requirements for those materials was crystal clear, then proper sorting would become almost ubiquitous. At present we are confounded by mixed material products and packaging that are not recyclable (yet say they are); confused by often inaccurate and misleading recycling labelling; bereft of any centralised reuse infrastructure; and utterly overwhelmed by the relentless messages to purchase new things rather than to live a life of simplicity within ecological limits and to extend these practices to sorting the valuable materials that we no longer want or need in our lives. With such a collection of challenges it is no wonder that those material streams leaving our houses and labelled ‘waste’ are not given greater value and more carefully sorted to avoid contaminating cheap polluting plastic waste with cheap imported food waste.

Thirdly, in terms of the cost/benefit of measuring the inappropriate mixing of resource streams at the business and household level, this could be readily carried out by resource collection companies who would then need to be adequately funded (from money generated by the sale of products that are most challenging to recycle such as plastics, in our transition to a circular economy) to engage directly in public education with the homeowners they serve. Thus measurement is recorded at very little extra cost, and remedial measures implemented on the ground in a sensitive manner to ensure that homeowners understand the necessity of their participation.

What changes are required in Ireland to ensure ‘End of Waste’ and other consent processes can support circular economy innovation?

Essentially all resources currently classified as ‘waste’ need to be removed from that category as an inherent part of the circular economy process.

Taking the 7 ‘key value chains’ in the European Commission Circular Economy Action Plan – namely electronics and ICT; batteries and vehicles; packaging; plastics; textiles; construction and buildings; and food, water and nutrients – we can examine some changes needed for each ‘waste’ type as follows:

1. Changes needed in the area of Electronics and Information and Communications Technology: ensure that all products are repairable; that all materials are readily separable for recycling and reconditioning; that toxic and hazardous components are eliminated from use for safe reuse, recycling and reconditioning.

2. Batteries and Vehicles: move towards 100% recovered material inputs for metals and minerals, towards zero extraction for new products. Move towards innovation in zero energy input systems, services and products to reduce dependance on energy availability. Move towards innovation in alternative travel and transport to shift the focus from single car ownership and road haulage to high quality public transport infrastructure and to more local supply networks.

3. Packaging: move towards returnable glass containers with central washing and reissuing service in Ireland. Implement a charge for all plastic packaging used, much like the plastic bag tax, to pay directly for plastic waste cleanup in Ireland and in those countries where we have sent our plastic wastes in the past; and ultimately in our oceans.

4. Plastics: remove the inherent subsidies for fossil fuels that negate their financial accountability for climate and biodiversity impacts. Gradually remove fossil hydrocarbon based plastics from the supply chain – without which a circular economy is not possible.

5. Textiles: the main challenge with textiles is the sheer volume of production. The volume of clothing made and sold every year is far in excess of our requirements. To create a circular economy we will need to distinguish between fast fashion and clothing needs – which are sides of the textiles coin. Alongside the sheer rate of production of unnecessary items, we also need to look at the materials used. Plastic clothing is one of the largest sources of microplastics, and needs to either be removed from the supply chain or else be fitted with a surcharge to pay fully for microplastic clean-up – which I cannot imagine is a low-cost operation, if it is possible at all.

6. Construction and buildings: Move from high energy concrete and steel towards timber construction. Ensure that construction materials, admixtures, fillers etc are toxin free and easily separable at end-of-life so that buildings and their component parts, as with other products, are readily reusable, repairable and recyclable.

7. Food, water and nutrients: Food growing has relied essentially on the conversion of fossil fuels (biocides and nitrogen fertilisers) into food for over half a century. This linear process needs to be changed to a circularity that acknowledges the soil, and the life within the soil, as the basis for our food production. We need to urgently transform from a fossil fuel based agriculture to a regenerative agriculture that cycles nutrients (from animals and people alike), sequesters carbon, and is healthy for the people, plants and animals involved in all stages of production and consumption.

Water supply and treatment is currently a major consumer of global energy needs, and as such is unnecessarily leaking energy from the circular system. We need to redesign our water supply and treatment infrastructure to dramatically reduce energy inputs and to remove the need for extensive treatment by keeping our catchments clean. Simple measures such as storage of roof runoff at a height, can allow a fully gravity fed water supply to work without any external energy inputs.

The main macronutrients for plant growth are N, P and K. Nitrogen fertiliser is hugely energy intensive to manufacture, making it inherently unsustainable. Phosphorus is a limited resource with a short window of availably at current consumption levels. There is an obvious source of untapped macronutrients being processed for disposal at our sewage treatment systems. This can instead by diverted at source using existing Scandinavian source separation technologies to recoup humanure and urine for reuse in agriculture.

Micronutrients in our food have been dropping steadily over the past 70 decades with the increasing use of artificial fertilisers and biocides and with an increase in food processing and extended shelf-life requirements for our food distribution systems. Thus the the nutrient availability for our health has been diminishing, and we are seeing a growth in the diseases related to diet, such as diabetes, cancers, heart disease, obesity and others. Also, with changes to atmospheric carbon concentrations our food crops have the potential to grow more quickly, but are showing reduced micronutrient concentrations, further exacerbating this drop in the availability of essential nutrients for our health.

Any circular economy endeavours must take into account the soil, that underlying essential ingredient of any healthy society. We must cease our mining of soil humus and soil carbon with intensive nitrogen inputs and excessive soil exposure; and recognise the absolute necessity for building circular food growing systems that return biomass and nutrients to feed the living soil layer beneath our feet.

How can we promote greater awareness of the Circular Economy amongst businesses and citizens?

There are very specific policy measures that would help to promote greater awareness of, and engagement with, the circular economy, as follows:

A. Cap global carbon extraction/imports – this will immediately put greater value on circularity and will show clear government commitment to depart from the linear ‘extract → use → dispose’ model that fossil carbon reserves literally fuels with both plastic production and ‘dirty energy’. By removing the current artificial subsidies on the cost of high-energy-input products and services, the cost of these will rise; thus encouraging greater innovation into a low-energy and low-resource input economy.

B. The words we use are important. We need to relabel ‘waste’ as ‘resources’ so that their value is clear. In tandem with this we need to remove from the supply chain those materials that are not readily reused, recycled or composted. Thus as we change our terminology around waste and provide clear pathways for managing the resources currently called wastes, businesses and citizens will find it much easier to grasp the ideas being promoted. Where there is a clear, logical message, there is good engagement.

C. We need to steadily remove items from the supply chain that actively interfere with attaining a circular economy. Examples include toxins that make reuse and recycling hazardous for people’s health or the environment; mixed materials products that are not readily separable for reuse and recycling; products that cannot be readily repaired, where repairable options can be created or already exist; raw materials or energy sources from extractive rather than recycled or regenerative processes.

What undertakings can business sectors such as retailers (food/electrical/textiles), manufacturers and food producers offer to promote circular economy practices?

One of the great obstacles to changing how society and the economy function is active interference in the democratic process by companies that stand to gain or loose financially by the decisions taken. Thus the tobacco lobby managed to block appropriate labelling of their product for decades and to confuse and suppress the science around the health effects of smoking. Similarly fossil fuel companies have, for many decades, known of the correlation between carbon emissions and climate breakdown, and have been so effective in confusing the science around the subject that it is still sometimes referred to as the ‘climate debate’; with fossil fuel representatives included on media panels when discussing the actions that can be taken to ‘solve the environmental crisis’.

When implementing a circular economy it is important to remember that some industries will thrive, and others will have to change with the times. Just as asbestos, PCBs and DDT are all products of the past, so microplastics, mixed materials products and toxic ingredients and components will all need to be relegated to history if we are to embrace a circular economy. What undertaking can the business sector take? To embrace the changes needed as a common good and not interfere with the legislation and policies that will be needed to create the change.

However it would be a great inaccuracy to suggest that all, or even most, businesses interfere negatively. Businesses, like the people who run them and work in them, are very varied; and are there to meet a real or perceived need in society. Many businesses take a wider look at the bigger picture, and actively strive to be part of the solution to the social and ecological challenges that we face in todays world. Common business names such as The Body Shop, Lush, Green and Blacks, Bewleys and many others have an expressed focus on creating positive change.

As we move towards a circular economy there are innumerable opportunities for businesses to start up, to develop or branch out into areas that actively support a circular economy. Indeed, the opportunities are seemingly endless. What is needed is to engage the best in the people who run them, the people who work in them, the people who buy from them. We need to completely reimagine how our society can thrive in a circular, zero-net-carbon future; and then start to create the policies and structures to support that. The business sector and the people within it will rise to the challenge.

Is there a role for a further extension of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes across products such as textiles, food and building materials?

EPR is vital for many of the current materials that we have within our economy. Microplastics from clothing, tyres, recycling and other sources are now in our food, our drinking water and our soil. Plastic waste is accumulating in our oceans and causing untold harm to wildlife in the wider environment. Why is it that plastics can be so cheap to buy, so profitable for manufacturers and yet there is no concerted funded national or global effort at a clean-up?

EPR also has a similar role to play in other products that are detrimental for the environment, public health and wildlife; including dirty carbon fuels such as coal and shale gas, fossil reserves generally, biocide manufacture, mixed materials products that prevent easy recycling and materials reuse and the like.

However – EPR should be seen only as a transitional measure from a linear economic model to a circular economy. Ultimately those products listed here need to be removed from the supply chain if we are to have a circular economy that is, well, circular. So EPR is a very important stepping stone, but not a long term substitute for overhauling how and what we introduce into the economy as virgin materials.

That said, EPR simply becomes the cost, charged at source, for recouping the product or materials at the end of their use. This isn’t so much extended producer responsibility as a straightforward charge to support the reuse infrastructure and a deposit and return process to keep products (such as glass bottle and jar packaging) and materials (such as metals) moving through the process and not stagnating for lack of funds at a critical point in the circle.

What are the areas with greatest potential for transformation in Ireland under the Circular Economy?

The question assumes that we can take our time with this. The Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change have estimated that there are 10 years left in which to return our atmospheric carbon levels from current concentrations to safe levels. That’s not 10 years within which to decide on a course of action, it’s 10 years within which that action needs to have shown dramatic results. Similarly with biodiversity loss, we are experiencing mass extinction now. The ongoing encroachment by habitat destruction, pollution, poisoning by biocide use, resource overconsumption are happening now and need to be halted immediately. Perhaps a more appropriate question may be phrased as “What are the steps we can take to transform each area of our economy into a circular one?”

Here Corona has given us a very useful practice run. We can cease to engage in non-essential activities until the emergency is over; and we can flatten the curve on fossil reserve extraction so that our carbon emissions are spread out over the next 50 to 100 years rather than splurged in a spike as they have been these decades.

To best make use of the time, resources and energy currently invested in non-essential activities, we can wholeheartedly embrace endeavours that move towards a circular economy, and rebuild the infrastructure we need to keep society happy and healthy – closing any and all exit point from the economy for energy and material leaks.

To flatten the curve on carbon extraction while still having a good quality of life and the services that we have come to enjoy such as light and heat and material comfort, we need to embrace opportunities for renewable energy generation at every level. Micro-generation on every roof, community energy schemes and similar innovations need to be seen not only as a financial opportunity, but as a social good.

Similarly at all levels of society, we need to encourage full participation in the process of decarbonising our economy and closing loops on all material and energy flows to create the circularity that is so crucial at this time of emergency (Climate and Biodiversity – not Corona). Thus at every level of the economy and society we need to develop a social conscience that steers us towards a safe path rather than toward disaster.

Back to section 7 – Construction and Demolition Waste
Continue to Conclusion
Index page of report

Featured image: light experiment. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/lighting-experiment-8-1469905

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