What is the Circular Economy?
For those of us new to the term ‘Circular Economy’, it is understandable that it might need some explaining. Sometimes the quickest route to understanding is when someone paints you a picture. Dr. O’Rafferty has painted a very vivid picture of what the circular economy means and what it means today, in Ireland.
His report expertly curates a selection of actors and sectors to give us an insight into the workings and potential for the circular economy in the Irish economy: private enterprise driven by opportunity and reward; community enterprise driven by social regeneration; innovators in every field. What they all have in common is making the most of the resources already available and in circulation; to be resource efficient.
Role of DCCAE:
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is, in short, the Department of Resource Efficiency. It’s about using the resources we have in a sustainable manner to drive change, transform rural Ireland, support employment and protect our people and our planet for future generations. And my department’s challenge is to give leadership through policies and programmes that translate this aspiration into action across the entire portfolio.
From the perspective of my own particular portfolio, Community Development, Natural Resources and Digital Development, I see much of interest in this report.
Circular Economy in Minerals Development:
Recently, an amendment was proposed to the Minerals Development Bill which would make a good example of how policy makers can facilitate the transition to a circular economy. The amendment was designed to achieve some reuse of abandoned mines following research by the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Geosciences. This research identified the dormant potential of abandoned mines, where rare earth minerals which were once thought to be of no use were discarded in tailings.
Some of this material is now understood to be of great value in the electronics industry and elsewhere. So there may be merit in revisiting certain sites both to re-extract valuable minerals contained within the tailings and also to ensure their appropriate final remediation. The proposal itself will require more consideration but I endorse its good intention.
Community and Digital Development:
I am also very interested in the role the circular economy could play in fostering both community development and digital development – two mutually complementary policy areas. Simon has reported on some particularly dynamic actors in that space and I look forward to hearing more from them later in this morning’s conversations.
EU Circular Economy Action Plan
The European Commission’s Action Plan for the Circular Economy from 2015 proposes that we can re-organise our economies to the economic benefit of citizens, and at the same time improve our protection of the environment.
The Plan anticipates the creation of nearly 600,000 jobs and business savings of €600 billion across the EU. In carbon emissions alone, our environment would benefit by a reduction of 450 million tonnes every year. While revised waste targets are still under negotiation, my department is also working to ensure that we are well-placed to take advantage of the many other initiatives included in the Plan.
The Circular Economy in Action in Ireland – the National Waste Prevention Programme
Many of you here are familiar with the good work done by the EPA’s National Waste Prevention Programme. Cited by the Commission as ‘best in class’ for performance, this programme has instigated real change within our businesses, our farms and our communities.
Some particular highlights from the 2016 programme include:
The Green Business programme helped 42 companies identify savings estimated at €1.2m per annum.
The Smart Farming programme has reached a landmark 1,000 farmers and has identified average savings of more than €5,000 each – phenomenal in the context of average farm incomes.
Our Stop Food Waste campaign has raised its profile significantly this year. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have set a target of halving food waste by 2030. It seems a distant time but there is a huge challenge involved here and there is no time to be lost.
Domestic Business Resilience
It is also worth considering how circular economy innovations can improve the resilience of domestic business. With Brexit and other global uncertainties, it is really important that Irish business seek to control as many cost factors as they can. By preventing resource waste and maximising utility throughout the production cycle, business can build essential resilience against external shocks and impacts.
In recent decades, the trend has been to look beyond our shores and act globally. Now, with the pressure on natural resources, growing awareness of the impacts of global business on communities and the environment, it is time to once again think local. And it is time to think again about the resources and opportunities that are already here and under our very noses.
For instance, Ireland is one of the first countries in Europe to have developed a reuse scheme for WEEE products. The scheme approves operators to gain cost-free access to WEEE stocks including valuable large household appliances and ICT equipment. We may not have a primary production sector for many of these goods but we can derive value from such products throughout their entire life cycle. Through Repair, Reuse and Recycling these resources, we can ensure that Ireland gets maximum benefit from our original investment.
And speaking of Reuse, I would like to remind you all that we are now reaching the end of ‘Reuse Month’. October has been designated as ‘Reuse Month’ by the Reuse community and the idea is to promote the ethos of “pass it on, repair it, refurbish it, or share it”. Such local initiatives have a positive social value too; supporting local training and jobs, in repair, refurbishment and retail. It also brings the circular economy to the ordinary citizen on the street, so that everyone can have a role in the circular economy.
Meeting our environmental challenges is not easy. Recent reports of the catastrophic decline in biodiversity and the proliferation of plastic waste throughout our ecosystem could cause us to despair. We need to identify and pursue routes out of this despair. Transforming our economies to become circular is a rational, evidence-based and achievable goal. Turning the economic ship towards a more sustainable direction is a huge challenge and Simon’s report provides an invaluable snapshot of where we now stand in this regard. I look forward to hearing the Council’s own response to the report later this morning and reflecting on the Government’s capacity to speed our transition to a more circular economy.