Nature provides solution

circular economy

 

 

The economy is a linear one. We extract the earth’s resources, make use of them and, subsequently, when they are beyond their useful life, we throw them away.

Clearly, the linear economy and its exponents assume that this pattern of behaviour can go on and on. However, in distinct contrast to this philosophy, the earth’s resources are limited and not infinite and consequently, a linear economy is unsustainable.

In contrast to the linear economy, the politics of sustainable development puts forward the circular economy alternative. This signifies that a product , instead of being thrown away and ending in its “grave” at the end of its useful life, gives birth to another product. This is the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which Mother Earth has been using successfully for ages.

Nature in fact works in this manner. Take a look at any tree. At the appropriate time, it sheds its leaves, which disintegrate in the soil below. Nature does not waste the leaves shed by the tree, as they are reused and reabsorbed through the roots of the same tree as nutrients.

The circular economy is, hence, basically an imitation of nature. In environmental-speak we call this biomimicry.

Through the office of DG Environment, the European Commission, in August 2014, published a scoping study “to identify potential circular economy actions, priority sectors, material flows & value chains”.

The circular economy deals with much more than waste prevention and waste reduction. Eco-design is one particular area of action. Through eco-design the circular economy seeks to eliminate waste at the drawing board. When product ideas are still in the conceptual stage, eco-design is the tool through which such products can be planned in such a manner that they create less and less waste. This is done through subjecting the constitutive elements of the product being designed to a lifecycle assessment: that is from extraction up to end of life.

This assessment leads to the identification of all the environmental impacts of a product. Consequently the options that result in the least environmental impacts can be selected. In addition, a lifecycle assessment will also point to the best materials to be used, such that, at the end of its useful life, a product could be easily recycled.

 

In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things William McDonough and Michael Braungart focus specifically on this aspect. They identify specific industrial and commercial initiatives which seek to dematerialise the economy as a result of which we end up doing more with less. The same level of service is achieved but, in the process, has substantially fewer material inputs: practical resource efficiency.

In addition to saving on material costs as well as energy, the transition from a linear to a circular economy presents numerous potential benefits. In particular, it attracts additional investment and can create thousands of jobs that realistically contribute to making the world a better place to live in.

Since last May and ending next month, the European Commission is carrying out a public consultation to be in a position to present a circular economy strategy that would be more ambitious than the that put forward by the Barroso Commission.

In the EU Roadmap for a Circular Economy strategy, the clear focus is on innovation and job creation placed within the wider EU commitment to sustainable development. The EU wants to decouple the strategy from waste management and, as a result, to factor in other policies such as competitiveness, research and innovation, environment protection, job creation and economic growth as the practical objectives of a revised circular economy strategy.

Addressing the 2015 European Circular Economy Conference last March, European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella emphasised that, in a circular economy, sustainability is inbuilt into the fabric of society.

I will go one further : the circular economy, if allowed to operate, will decrease the incompatibilities between the economy and nature. It will bring us closer to reality: that we live in an ecosystem which must be respected at all times and at all costs.

published in the Times of Malta : Thursday 13 July 2015

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The politics of e-waste

WEEE Electrical and Electronic Waste

 

Last Monday’s budget has placed waste on the national agenda once more.  This time the focus is on waste generated by electric and electronic equipment. Put simply the issue is that there exists conflicting legislation on the Maltese statute book. On the one hand it is the applicability of the Eco-Contribution Act. On the other hand its the WEEE Directive of the EU which has been transposed into Maltese legislation as of 2007 (Legal Notice 63 of 2007 since replaced by Legal Notice 204 of 2014). WEEE meaning Waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment.

The Eco-Contribution Act of 2004 established the quantum of an eco-contribution to be paid on electric and electronic equipment. This eco-tax was added on to the price of the various electric and electronic equipment sold in local shops: fridges, ovens, telephones, computers, electronic games, calculators, vending machines ………………….  The  amount of tax payable ranging from 25 euro cents to €69.88.

Eco-contribution collected peaked in 2008 at slightly over €15.6 million. It is estimated that around €7.8 million will be collected in 2014 and another €6 million in 2015.

As of 2007 producers (and their representatives), in addition to being responsible for the payment of the eco-contribution, have also been responsible for implementing the WEEE Directive in Malta. This Directive forms part of a number of a set of EU Directives which address different waste streams with the objective of ensuring that waste is considered as a precious resource. Hence the need to recover this resource in order to reintegrate it into the economy.  This means the transformation of all waste into useable resources.

The Directive applied the principle of extended producer responsibility throughout the life of the equipment.  This signifies that producers of electric and electronic equipment, directly as well as through their representatives (the importers) and those dealing with such equipment at points of sale retain responsibility throughout the life cycle of the products. This life cycle thinking has its first impact on the drawing board as producers seek to minimise the use of resources not only cost-wise but also due to the fact that if they do so they will have less to recover. This encourages eco-design. Thereby designing and subsequently producing products whilst keeping in mind their impact throughout their life. It is much more that a cradle to grave view. In fact it is considered as a cradle to cradle approach as at the end of its useful life a product will through recovery of the materials of which it is made up give rise to new products.

What does it signify for us?

Producers and their representatives have the direct responsibility of recovering  electric and electronic waste. In terms of the Directive they will either recondition the equipment or else strip it into its component parts and recycle the resulting materials. This will be done at a cost.  Depending on the efficiency of the process the producers and their representatives will recover a proportion of their costs when they sell the recovered resources.  The unrecovered costs may, in terms of the Directive, be added on to the price of the products. Producers’ representatives in Malta maintain that it is possible for the quantum of the unrecovered costs to be much lower than  what is currently being paid as an eco-contribution. Hence the net impact could be not only environmentally beneficial but also of direct benefit to the consumer.

The budget has announced a transition period lasting up to the end of August 2015 when it is planned that the eco-contribution on electric and electronic equipment is removed and producers (through their local representatives) assume their full extended responsibilities.

Electric and Electronic waste is currently collected by local councils through their bulky refuse service. It is also collected at bring-in sites operated by Wasteserve.  Producers will seek to coordinate these existing collection services with their already operational recovery schemes.

Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party as well as GRTU and other producers representatives have been insisting for ages that this is the way forward. In order to achieve results everyone must however play his part.

The net result will be beneficial for both the environment as well as the economy.

 

published in The Independent on Sunday – 23 November 2014