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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The two faces of Janus

In Roman mythology the god Janus was depicted as having a head with two faces. One looking eastwards and the other westwards. One symbolically looking into the future  and the other into the past.  

Unfortunately it is not Janus who overlooks the entrance to the Ministry for the Environment in Valletta. Janus could symbolically motivate environmental policy through learning through past mistakes and applying the lessons learnt into the future.  Janus could however symbolise the two political faces of government. One compatible with its declarations and rhetoric. The other with its actions.

Consider this government’s commitments in favour of sustainable development. In May 2008 the Head of State reading the speech from the throne on behalf of Gonzipn promised  one and all that :

The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.

Sustainable development has three main dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection.  When we evaluate our activities in view of these three inter-related dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the Government’s actions.”

The member of Cabinet responsible for issues of sustainable development is the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Dr Gonzi’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by his rhetoric but through his actions. He excels in rhetoric but he fails miserably in implementation.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for almost five years, since December 2006. Its Chairman is Dr Gonzi. During its last meeting it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it then submitted to Cabinet for approval. The main function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016). The strategy is half way past its lifespan and the process for its implementation is nowhere in sight.

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to government’s strategy. The National Sustainable Development Strategy was drafted after years of discussions with civil society. The Commission which in terms of the Environment Protection Act had to be chaired by the Prime Minister hardly ever met in the presence of Dr Gonzi. He delegated his responsibilities to others. When the National Sustainable Development Strategy was finalised government ignored it and commenced the formulation of another document dealing with a National Environment Policy. The information available to date about this National Environment Policy is substantially a duplication of what’s been said and written on the Sustainable Development strategy.

All this leads to one conclusion. The current government is primarily interested in talking about sustainable development and environmental issues. But when the time comes for implementation it goes back to square one. More talk and more documents.

Well it seems that the Minster for the Environment, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, needs some images of Janus at his office. It would remind him constantly that in the long run having two faces on the same head is only suited to mythology.      

 Published Sunday 7th August 2011

The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement

 

Reflections on an Environment Policy

The current debate on what should form part of a National Environment Policy is a healthy exercise. It is focusing not only on the different aspirations of each citizen but also on the role of each one of the towns and villages which together constitute this country.

The environmental issues we face are the result of the manner we organise our lives both individually and as a community. In fact it can be safely stated that the manner in which economic activity has been organised throughout time has created different environmental and social impacts.

The exercise at this point in time is hence the clear identification of these impacts and subsequently seeking the best manner in which they can be tackled. This is done on two fronts: firstly through the formulation of an environment policy and secondly by integrating this environment policy with economic and social policy within the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD).

The NSSD has already been formulated and approved by Cabinet almost three years ago after a long process of consultation. It established targets and objectives which have unfortunately been ignored by the same Government which has approved them. This necessarily leads to the conclusion that these exercises can be a waste of time as their only purpose seems to be an exercise to prove that the new hands on deck can do things in a better way than those they have replaced. 

The National Environment Policy Issues Paper identifies a number of areas which are to be tackled but excludes a number of important ones. What is in my view objectionable and bordering on the insulting is the ignoring by the Issues Paper of the NSSD. It also ignores matters which have been tackled by the NSSD as well as the specific targets identified. This the NSSD did after extensive consultation with civil society, which the Issues Paper promises to go through again.

 

Eco-taxation

One such case refers to the use of economic instruments to attain environmental objectives. The Issues Paper queries whether and to what extent there is agreement  with the use of such instruments to further environmental objectives. Simultaneously with the publication of the Issues Paper, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech through the pre-budget document was lauding the idea of introducing a carbon tax and the possible utilisation of the proceeds to affect a tax shift. This is in the spirit of the former EU Commission President  (French Socialist) Jacques Delors’ 1993 EU White Paper entitled “On growth, competitiveness and employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century”.

So whilst the Environment Ministry is requesting our opinion on the use of eco-taxation (and other instruments) it seems that the Finance Ministry is dead-set to proceed.  Do these two Ministries form part of the same government? 

Both the Environment Ministry and the Finance Ministry would do well to go back in time to the debate on the introduction of the eco-contribution (2003-05) where they could identify a number of issues raised by civil society.

Should fiscal objectives be the purpose of environmental taxation or would it rather be environmental improvement? All over the globe governments declare that their aim in applying eco-taxation is environmental improvement. Yet they resist transferring political responsibility for environmental taxation from the Finance Ministry to the Environment Ministry. Such a move would lend credence to statements on the environmental objectives of eco-taxation and would ensure that the design of specific measures is more in line with encouraging changes in behaviour. Retaining political responsibility for environmental taxation at the Finance Ministry on the other hand signifies that the objective is to tax behaviour but not  to change it. This reluctance is generally reflected in the manner  in which eco-taxes are designed. Fiscal policy makers pay attention to the fact that changing behaviour would mean drying up a source of revenue. Hence eco-taxes designed for fiscal objectives are intended not to affect the elasticity of demand. This is done by selecting items in respect of which there are no alternatives and thus irrespective of tax added to the price there is no alternative to purchasing the product or service. The eco-contribution exercise clearly illustrates this argument.

 

Environmental nuisance 

The Issues Paper has failed to project an understanding that environmental issues can be most effectively tackled at a micro-level. In fact the Issues Paper adopts an exclusively macro approach and does not give any weight to the real life issues. Issues of environmental nuisance are the ones which the man in the street feels strongly about. These include primarily noise, air quality and odour nuisance caused by neighbours in residential areas. They could range from an air conditioner fixed below your bedroom window to a neighbour’s fireplace chimney spewing smoke right into your living room or a bakery belching black smoke onto your washing line. Or the newly opened restaurant or snack bar in a transformed ground floor flat whose operator wouldn’t care less about where the odours from his kitchen end up.    

Information

Access to environmental information is an important aspect of environment policy. Yet the drafters of the Issues Paper ignored it. The environmental information aspects of the Åarhus Convention have been incorporated into Maltese legislation as a direct result of Malta’s EU accession. This legislation provides a mechanism through which the citizen requests the release of information which up till then would be withheld by the authorities. This is a very primitive form of governance. The state should release information without having its hand forced to do it. This is the minimum required in an age of transparency and accountability. 

Policy proposals and other initiatives must be buttressed by studies which not only justify the proposal or initiative but which also identify the resulting impacts and the manner in which these can be addressed. Studies must be published at an early stage and not in the final stages of a discussion. Otherwise the public debate cannot be fruitful.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability are not only duties of the state. They are also a responsibility of private enterprise.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting is one way in which private enterprise informs the public on its activities. It is a function as important as financial reporting. Financial reporting having been accepted by society for quite a long time as a reporting requirement.

In Malta currently two companies publish a CSR report. Vodafone (Malta) and Bank of Valletta (BOV) have already published two editions of their CSR report. There has been considerable improvement in the information made available by Vodafone (Malta) in its second report, but BOV’s reporting  can be substantially improved.

The environment policy should identify the type of organisations that should have the duty to report publicly and on a regular basis on their environmental and other impacts. By organisations I understand not just industry and business but also public corporations, government departments and local authorities. A reasonable first step would be for companies quoted on the stock exchange to take the lead followed by public bodies such as Enemalta, Water Services Corporation, Heritage Malta and Air Malta.

CSR reporting should be guided by international standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines and should be subject to auditing in order to verify that the statements made reflect what the organisation is really up to. 

Alternattiva Demokratika, AD, the Green Party in Malta has earlier this month published a document in reply to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper which lists and discusses the areas missed out by the said Issues Paper.  In addition to focusing on the urgent need to implement the NSSD, environment information, environmental nuisance and environment information it also points out the need to tackle the uptake of environmental management systems such as ISO 14001 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) Regulations of the European Union, light pollution, contaminated land, environmental and sustainability planning at a locality level better known as Local Agenda 21,  the role of civil society and environmental NGOs in environment policy and environment  research.  

We hope that when the environment policy is drafted it will include the widest possible list of issues and will tackle them in an holistic manner keeping in mind the parameters established in the National Sustainable Development Strategy.                 

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that environment policy is one of several instruments through which improvement in the quality of life can be attained. Protecting the environment signifies that we better our quality of life. It also signifies that each one of us acts in a responsible manner. However primarily it must be government which leading the way should act in an appropriate manner in order that it leads by example.

 published in

The Independent on Sunday, October 17, 2010, Environment Supplement