The circular economy revolution

Dr Ian Garner

The idea of thinking of our economy as a circular process is taking on greater global importance and I’m delighted that Northern Ireland is right in the middle of this debate. The simple fact is we just can’t continue to use and dispose of our resources as we do now. If we do, then by 2050 we will need at least three times more material resources - and 70% more food - just to maintain the status quo. Another planet will be necessary to keep up with demand. Exactly how and where we secure these extra resources are questions taxing governments all over the world as we witness the tripartite pressures of unprecedented global population growth, resource scarcity and increasing commodity price fluctuations. 

We urgently need to radically rethink how we treat our resources.

Fortunately a school of thought is gaining momentum that is tackling this head on. The ‘Circular Economy’ is a system of valuing things differently by assessing how we design, make, sell, re-use and recycle things and creating a more robust economy in the process - one that operates by continually moving materials around, not landfilling them. I attended the recent CIWM Northern Ireland conference and pleasingly the circular economy model loomed large over the day. Design was the buzzword at the conference as when it comes to products it’s crucial that we think about their design in news ways. We need to consider both how to design waste out in the earliest stage of a product’s conception, and also how we can design for disassembly and re-use - to keep the constituent parts circulating around the economy. For WRAP Northern Ireland this is a golden thread running through all our work. 

A circular economy also requires us to be willing to develop and adopt new business models to keep resources in use for as long as possible. We need to think of the way in which we ‘consume’. Take a washing machine for example. In a circular economy we think about how we can design the machine to ensure it can be prolonged for as long as possible, and how we can dismantle and re-use its parts once it reaches its end of life. Then we go further and think about new models of consumption, perhaps based on renting rather than buying outright. 

We’ve put this thinking together into a vision for 2020 of how WRAP sees a world working in a more circular motion. The good news is such a model offers considerable economic rewards. Businesses could benefit in the region of £23 billion per year through low cost or no cost improvements in the efficient use of resources. 

Changing ingrained business models, though, isn’t easy and sometimes requires a leap of faith. But we’re addressing this and helping organisations in Northern Ireland move forward. We recently engaged with the public sector providing sustainable procurement training sessions. We’ve a suite of online sustainable procurement guidance and e-learning modules that are all freely available to use if this is an area of interest.

In June we’ll be holding a seminar on resource efficiency in construction and refurbishment in association with Constructing Excellence Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster, bringing up-to-the-minute practical solutions to the sector in Northern Ireland. Get in contact if you’d like to attend. 

Circular economy ideas have been quietly developing for a while and the time is ripe for the circular economy revolution in Northern Ireland. WRAP is at the heart of this new movement, helping harness the £multi-million savings potential. Why not take a minute to see what we can do for you www.wrapni.org.uk