Re-defining rubbish - the Circular Economy

27 Jun 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Jun 2019

Pic: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash

It’s good that so many people are becoming more conscious about single use plastics. It’s even better that the environment has catapulted up the political agenda.

But re-using plastic cups and putting the right things in the blue bin is not enough. The next stage is to completely change our view of stuff we no longer need. It’s not rubbish, but a valuable potential resource.

Just in Northern Ireland we could create 13,000 jobs and generate £474 million per annum by changing what we do with, and our attitudes towards waste, according to a report commissioned by Business in the Community in 2017.   

The central problem we need to address is to break the link between rising prosperity and greater consumption of resources. This is not just good for the environment but good for business as well.

In today’s economy, natural resources are mined and extracted, turned into products and finally discarded. Given that resources are finite this economic system is ultimately unsustainable despite improvements in efficiency and conventional recycling.

This is not some doom-laden theory – it is happening now. A Chatham House report from 2012  reported on steadily increasing prices of raw materials after a long period of being cheap. Prices  remain both high and volatile today.

The answer is to create what is known as a Circular Economy whereby waste from factories would become a valuable input to another process – and products could be repaired, reused or upgraded instead of thrown away.

The process is underway and there are some exciting examples. One is the growth of eco-industrial parks. There are around 250 of these worldwide.

The first was at Kalundborg in Denmark where surplus heat from a power plant is used to heat 3,500 homes along with a nearby fish farm, whose sludge is sold as a fertiliser. Steam is sold to three other companies; fly ash and clinker are used for road building and cement and another by-product is used to create plaster board.

There is nothing on this scale in Northern Ireland but we are seeing a massive increase in the number of Anareobic Digestion plants which break down organic waste producing gas for energy and fertilisers. An example is Granville Ecopark in Dungannon which generates electricity both for itself and customers, produces fertiliser and even uses biogas to power vehicles.

The number of such plants in Northern Ireland is set to double to more than 100 over the next few years – the highest concentration in the UK.

One of the most urgent requirements for proponents of Circular Economies is around food waste. Cities are key to resolving this as they continue to grow. By 2050 more than two-thirds of people will live in cities. This means that by 2050  80% of all food will be destined for cities, putting civic authorities in a position where they can transform the food economy.

Currently only 2% of the nutrients in food by products and human waste are recovered for productive use. Therefore if you can solve the problem of food waste in cities you are a long way towards eliminating it altogether.

Milan in Italy has taken the lead with its Milan Food Policy.

The city has set up a food hub where excess food from supermarkets, private canteens and street markets is redistributed. Food wastage in schools was reduced by 17% by giving children fruit during their morning break instead of after lunch and providing reusable doggy bags to take food home at the end of the day. Trucks powered by biofuel transport food waste from households, businesses and schools to be converted into fertiliser and biogas. Some of the fertiliser is used to reclaim urban land. Restaurants and canteens that contribute to food banks get a tax break of 20%. Most of the food consumed in the city is produced by an agricultural consortium of surrounding farms. Now all the rice provided by school canteens comes from the neighbourhood.

Milan provides an exemplar other cities are beginning to follow.

We should take careful note in Northern Ireland. The Business in the Community report estimated that 17,000 tonnes of food currently wasted could be redistributed. It added: “At present (the charity) FareShare redistributes 170 tonnes a year in Northern Ireland, indicating the scale of opportunity.”

It puts the value of potential savings at £112 million per annum.

General levels of recycling are improving in Northern Ireland but we are lagging. The BiTC Report states that more than  two million tonnes of Northern Ireland’s waste is not being recovered, reused, composted or recycled each year. It’s probably a good deal more than this given the number of illegal dump sites.

And around 390,000 tonnes of recycled material is exported, meaning we miss out on the opportunity to recycle locally, with the potential for creating local jobs.

There is so much more potential too. Many Circular Economy advocates speak of what we see as rubbish as extraordinarily valuable resource. Just one example. A tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just five grams of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield up to 150 grams. The technology to extract this does not currently exist. But it will – and there will be many other resources in old landfill sites and the like.

Critical is winning over the hearts and minds of consumers. Recent publicity about single-use plastic has helped create the right atmosphere but a key battleground will be the fashion industry – one of the most wasteful of all.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has recently published a report on how to create a Circular Economy in fashion.

In the last 15 years clothing production has doubled, with the “fast fashion” trend exacerbating demand. Globally customers miss out on $460 billion of value of clothes every year by throwing away garments they could continue to wear, with many after an average of seven wears.

It quotes another report which estimates that the overall benefit to the world economy would be $190 billion if the fashion  industry corrected the societal and environmental damage it is responsible for.

Here there is a clear challenge for designers and celebrities and fashion icons. What we need to see is a movement towards manufacturing clothes with re-use and recycling in mind and creating a market where the quality of a wardrobe is valued above quantity of items within it. There’s also room for expanding the rental market in clothes for special occasions.

We’re beginning, albeit slowly, to see this happening.

A major driver will be technological innovation, not just in developing new types of reusable materials but also in the way we behave. Some of this is already happening without most of us realising its significance. For example streaming gives us access to an infinite amount of music and film without creating physical products and auction and other second hand online sites are finding new owners for things that would otherwise be thrown away.

We are moving to a Circular Economy – the big question is whether this is happening fast enough.




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