THE term ‘circular economy’ is one that we have been hearing more and more about recently.
We might all have a different understanding of the concept, but we know that it represents a major shift in the way we produce and consume goods and services.
Essentially, in a circular economy the links between economic activity and resource use and waste generation are disrupted.
As a society, we are rapidly depleting the Earth’s natural resources. Our increased extraction and use of resources such as fossil fuels and minerals contributes to habitat destruction and global warming.
Worldwide, our consumption of materials has trebled from 26.7 billion tonnes in 1970 to an astonishing 92 billion tonnes in 2017. Half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss comes from resource extraction and processing. It is estimated that by 2050, we would need three planet earths to meet our requirements for natural resources if we continue with our current levels of consumption.
The circular economy model aims to address the problems of resource depletion, biodiversity loss and climate change by keeping materials, resources and products in use for as long as possible. It involves a change in thinking and in practice, from our current “take, make and dispose” linear consumption model to a circular model where products are designed to minimise waste and pollution. They are kept in use for as long as possible and, once they have reached the end of their lifetime, they are recycled, repaired, recovered or regenerated to minimise disposal of precious resources.
At a personal level, many of us already support the circular economy through our daily habits and choices. When we choose to use a reusable cup or water bottle, donate clothes to or buy clothes from charity and vintage shops, repair everyday items such as bikes, upcycle or reupholster our furniture, buy second-hand goods, etc, we are supporting the circular economy.
These personal choices extend the lifespan of products and reduce the consumption of single-use items such as plastic bottles or disposable coffee cups and other resources such as textiles (which are the fourth highest commodity in terms of primary raw materials and water use).
In addition to the environmental benefits, these everyday decisions can also make economic sense and can have a positive impact on our finances.
However, the growing problem of resource depletion, biodiversity loss, soaring waste- production levels and global warming demands a more ambitious, joined-up approach to achieving a truly circular economy. We need to examine circular production of goods as well as consumption.
One local example of circular production is Revive Paint, which is a real-life circular economy initiative that delivers environmentally, socially and economically in Cork. Paint is a problem waste stream in Ireland. In Cork city and county, up to 190 tonnes of waste paint is collected at local authority civic amenity sites annually and is generally exported for treatment at a cost to both councils but also potentially to the environment. Approximately 60% of this waste paint is water based, much of which could be upcycled and reused.
Revive is a high quality, affordable paint produced by two Cork-based social enterprises using paint collected from the civic amenity sites that would otherwise be destined for disposal.
The social enterprises involved are Northside Community Enterprise (NCE) in Farranferris, Cork City, and Cycle Sense based in Skibbereen. They collect paint from the amenity sites and then filter, remix, recolour and repackage it for sale at affordable prices to the community.
Since production began in June, the two social enterprises have diverted over 2.5 tonnes of paint away from disposal.
In addition to the recirculation of resources and the production of a quality affordable paint, both social enterprises have recruited new staff to manufacture the paint.
The establishment of the Revive Paint scheme was made possible through funding received from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Local Authority Prevention Network and support from Cork City Council and Cork County Council. It also received valuable training and mentoring from the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, which has already had a successful paint recovery scheme in operation. This type of collaborative approach to developing circular systems and products by sharing resources and experience is a good blueprint for the delivery of a circular economy.
There is potential for the integration of circular principles into almost every aspect of production and consumption and the Revive Paint example demonstrates that delivering a circular economy can have positive environmental, economic and social impacts.
There is a long way to go, and large business and industry has a huge role to play in terms of product design, green procurement and minimising waste. That said, we cannot underestimate the part that we all can play in driving the shift to a circular economy through our own choices and demands for sustainable services and product.