Towards a Circular Economy

circular economy

In a recent interview EU Environment Commissioner Januz Potočnik stated that the European Union is en route to the circular economy. A step which he described as being essential in ensuring the EU’s competitiveness.

The circular economy, in contrast to the linear economy is one which respects nature and seeks to utilise the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner.

The linear economy is based on a take-make-waste model, extracting raw materials from the earth and dumping the resulting waste after use.  This is a cradle to grave path for raw materials. The EU’s waste management strategy in conjunction with its Roadmap to a Resources Efficient Europe seeks to decouple the generation of waste from economic growth thus nudging the EU towards a new path: one of green growth.

This is also the basic philosophy of the Waste Management Strategy proposed by the Environment Ministry in Malta and currently subject to public consultation.

Malta’s proposed Waste Management Strategy advocates a policy of waste minimisation, that is, we must make an effort to avoid use of resources whenever possible. In addition it then advocates recycling the waste which is generated. This is done by tackling different waste streams in a manner most appropriate to the materials used in that specific stream. 2050 is the Malta target for achieving a Zero Waste society. An achievable target only if we get down to business immediately.

Waste separation is  an essential prerequisite in order to ensure that effective recycling takes place.   As a result of recycling, the waste from a specific product or process feeds a separate process. This is the manner in which nature functions. Have you ever noted how a tree sheds its leaves? How these leaves slowly decompose and nourish the soil, micro-organisms, insects and plants and actually feed the surrounding eco-system?

We have a lot to learn from nature. Biomimicry, imitating nature, is in fact a branch of study which seeks to apply nature’s lessons to solve many modern day problems. Discarding our throwaway attitudes is one such basic lesson.

Modern manufacturing is characterised by a cradle to grave design. It is the result of a society accustomed to throw away products once their useful life ends.

Applying nature’s lessons hence signifies manufacturing products whose life cycle is no longer one which leads from the cradle (production) to their grave (disposal). Instead of being discarded at the end of its useful life a product gives birth to something else through recycling. Just like nature does when dealing with the tree’s leaves. The cradle to grave cycle needs to be transformed into a cradle to cradle cycle.

This obviously has an impact on the manner in which products are designed.  In their  book  Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, American Architect William McDonough and German Chemist Michael Braungart explain that life cycle thinking, instead of filtering out the undesirable substances and toxins in a product at the end of the manufacturing process filter them out at the beginning, that is on the drawing board.

A waste management strategy which is based on a resource management approach is linked to these long term aims. It is a long process but one which is finally rewarding.

By separating our waste we facilitate its recycling. When recycling takes place we reduce the take-up of the earth’s resources and consequently avoid using the energy required to extract more resources from the earth.

All this shifts the focus from economic growth linked to activities which harm our surroundings to economic activity which enhances them. This leads to the creation of  green jobs.  It shifts our thinking to one which links prosperity with environment protection.

Resource efficiency is at the core of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It does not only mean doing more with less, that is, being eco-efficient. It requires also being eco-effective, that is ensuring that the consideration of long term impacts features in all our decisions. That means designing the present with the future in mind.

A waste management policy based on resource efficiency is an essential tool in this respect. This is just one example. Plenty of other examples can be found in appropriate policies to manage our water resources, our land use, our heritage.

All this leads back to the circular economy which is not just a green way of organising our economy.  It is a different way of life. A way of life which is not antagonistic to our surroundings but one which is in harmony with them.

This is what sustainable development is all about. It seeks to redimension the manner we think.. Having just one Earth we must realise that we cannot have another try if we succeed in ruining the present one.  There is no Plan B.

The circular economy is an adequate tool which can set us back on track.

published in The Times, Saturday November 2, 2013

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Santiago and maritime affairs

Aerial View_Grand Harbour

Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea” was unlucky. It took him 85 days to catch his big fish. But when he did, being on his own out at sea without any help, he had to tow it back to port, only to discover then that the sharks had reduced his catch to a mere skeleton.  It is the same with maritime policy. We need to coordinate with our Mediterranean neighbours to have meaningful and lasting results. On our own we can achieve very little.

A national integrated maritime strategy is an essential policy tool. Yet, as was pointed out by Parliamentary Secretary Edward Zammit Lewis, it is still unavailable. On May 19, European Maritime Day,  it was emphasised by Zammit Lewis that such a strategy would identify Malta’s maritime policy priorities required to support the Blue Economy.

The economic opportunities presented by the sea which surrounds Malta are substantial. We do however have to make use of such opportunities carefully, knowing that various impacts may result. Through the sea surrounding us we are subject to impacts as a result of the actions of others. Similarly Malta’s maritime activities necessarily will impact other countries, for better or for worse.

The excellent quality of seawater around the Maltese islands resulting from Malta’s recent adherence to the Urban Wastewater Directive of the EU is one positive contribution to a better Mediterranean Sea even though the sewage treatment system is badly designed as it ignores the resource value of the discharged treated water.

Through Arvid Pardo in the 1960s Malta made a lasting contribution to global maritime thought by emphasising that the seabed forms part of the common heritage of mankind.

The sea and its resources have always had a central importance in Malta’s development. Tourism, fisheries and water management easily come to mind. Maritime trade and services as well as the sustainable utilisation of resources on the seabed are also essential for this island state.

Whilst a national maritime strategy will inevitably seek the further utilisation of the coastline and its contiguous areas it is hoped that environmental responsibilities will be adequately addressed in the proposals considered.

A national integrated maritime policy, though essential, cannot however be effective if it  does not take into consideration the activities of our neighbours: both their maritime  as well as their coastal activities.

This is an issue which is given considerable importance within the European Union which seeks to assist member states in coordinating their maritime policies for the specific reason that the impacts of such policies are by their very nature transboundary.  In fact one of the EU Commissioners, Maria Damanaki,  is tasked with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.  Her work is underpinned by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive which seeks to protect the sea in order that it could be utilised sustainably thereby contributing to attaining the objectives of EU2020, the ten year growth strategy of the European Union.

Within its maritime competencies the EU has also developed effective instruments of transboundary cooperation foremost amongst which are the Baltic Strategy and the Danube Strategy.  These macro-strategies of the European Union, as their name implies, focus on the Baltic Sea and the river Danube respectively. They bring together the European regions bordering the Baltic Sea and the Danube to cooperate in various policy areas such that the resulting coordination addresses challenges which no single country can address on its own.

Such strategies also serve as an instrument of cooperation with non-EU countries. Through the Baltic Strategy it is cooperation with Russia, Iceland and Norway whilst through the Danube Strategy eight EU member states cooperate with six European non-EU member states.  The EU has also more recently launched an Atlantic Ocean Strategy.

A national maritime strategy will  seek to identify those areas which can absorb strategic investments in order to develop the blue economy.  An important point worth emphasising is that a sustainable development of the blue economy will ensure that no negative impacts are borne by our communities residing along and adjacent to the coastal areas. Unfortunately not enough attention has been paid to this aspect in the past. Such negative impacts can be avoided not only through careful planning but also through proper consultation with both civil society as well as directly with residents.

Impacts which have to be avoided include air and sea pollution. In addition potential noise and light pollution need careful attention in particular if the operating times of the newly identified activities span into the silent hours.

Malta’s Maritime strategy needs a double focus: a national and a regional one.  Both are essential elements neither of which can be ignored. It is in Malta’s interest to take part in initiatives addressing transboundary impacts and simultaneously to integrate these initiatives within a national maritime policy strategy. Otherwise we will face Santiago’s fate. The result of our good work will be taken up by the sharks!

Originally published in The Times of Malta, Saturday June 8, 2013