Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

General Scheme of the Circular Economy Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)

Dr. Geraldine Brennan:

I will start at the beginning. With regard to what I referred to as closing the knowledge and awareness gap in Ireland, the big things are starting to be done. For example, there are platforms like MyWaste.ie. I know we have discussed that the circular economy is about more than just waste but, at the same time, from a household perspective, that can be the entry point. Repair My Stuff is another example. This is a collaboration between actors such as extended producer responsibility schemes, local authorities, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those kinds of knowledge portals help people who search for "circular economy", "repairing" or "Ireland" on Google. They come up and are a way to start investigating those things. That is really helpful. There are also campaigns on the radio or in other media. There is no silver bullet with regard to creating awareness about anything in society.

Again, embedding the idea of the circular economy in the curriculum is important. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the UK has a whole load of resources for teachers. There is an opportunity for teachers to embrace this. As part of CIRCULÉIRE's outreach activity, in November we are hosting transition year students at Irish Manufacturing Research's facility in Mullingar. The task they have been given is to communicate what the circular economy means for their schools. They will do a video. A multifaceted approach is needed rather than a single thing. It is about embedding this in a range of different ways.

In order to support industry, we have created Ireland's first open-access circular economy knowledge library. There is a great deal of information out there. If you put "circular economy" into Google, you will get 2 million hits. If you are new to the concept, it can be overwhelming to try to find the information that is relevant to you and that can help you. As we roll out our supports to industry, we are coming across case studies, sectoral reports and policy documents from other jurisdictions. They are there so that you know this is a good place to start if you are looking for the best - and I mean "best" in inverted commas - content.

With regard to local job creation, the circular economy can deliver in that space in two ways. One is that if you are ultimately trying to create material substitutes from production residues, you are creating the potential for more regionalised, localised supply chains. That, in turn, creates the potential for more jobs. The circular economy also creates the potential for jobs in tertiary services like repair services. The circular economy skill set initiative being piloted at the moment, which I highlighted in my opening statement, is about creating a training programme through the education and training boards to allow people to upskill with regard to repair. It also includes a work placement element. While this is being driven by industry and industry will want its own accredited repair technicians, there will ultimately be independent accredited technicians. This creates an opportunity for other people to access and be a part of this. As I highlighted in my earlier comments, it is about a multifaceted approach to how industry can work with social enterprise to deliver repair and manufacturing infrastructure to keep materials, components and products in use in the economy.

With regard to the current understanding of the circular economy within industry, IBEC and the EPA launched a survey of IBEC members at the end of 2019. I cannot remember the details but I can send them on to the committee afterwards. I will follow up with the statistics but there was still quite a low level of awareness among Irish CEOs. However, my experience through CIRCULÉIRE and its activities is that with the publication of the climate action plan in 2019, the waste action plan for a circular economy and the pre-consultation on the circular economy strategy and associated Bill, this conversation is proliferating everywhere. There are webinars. There is a great deal of activity. When I joined Irish Manufacturing Research, there was very little under way as regards the circular economy. There were no jobs in that area. From my perspective, this dialogue has exploded in Ireland over the last two or three years.

The Senator's last question was on the first piece of advice we give to businesses when they come through our doors. One of the things we do, and have done with our founding members, is to ask companies to assess their baseline impact. If you do not know and are not measuring your impact, how can you know if you have improved? There is a diversity with regard to what is measured and what is not, depending on existing regulatory requirements, whether an organisation is digital or still paper-based and whether information is available. It is a very poignant way to start this conversation. You need to know what your impact is if you do not know already. If you do know, are you really implementing the circular economy? Sometimes companies are but they are not used to some of the jargon. For example, they may do recycling, but that is recycling not the circular economy.

We take them on a journey. We tell them to start by measuring and ascertaining a baseline. We have developed a self-assessment capability toolkit which our members can use to reflect on their current capabilities and their target capabilities across a range of dimensions so that they can then start that internal dialogue. Ultimately, we recommend and undertake an in-depth circularity assessment on-site. With regard to the likes of Visioncare, which was mentioned, we walk the site and look for examples of structural waste. We then come back with a register of opportunities. We say that this is what can be done with the companies' waste. They might have to make an Article 27 or Article 28 application but there is value in the resource. When I refer to waste, I refer to it in the broadest sense. I mean underutilised capacity such as machines that are not being used. Again, this can be complicated when it comes to insurance, but can a computer numerical control, CNC, machine be rented out to another smaller enterprise for it to use?

It is very complicated when it comes to insurance but, effectively, that is an asset that is wasted even though it is not waste. Then we go on and develop that circular register of opportunities and action plan.

We emphasise the importance of collaborating with others. As I said in the opening statement, the circular economy is not something you can do by yourself. It is necessary to find parts of the supply chain that are willing to experiment with you to figure it out and, as in the examples of Freefoam Plastics, Glenveagh Homes, Mulligan Guttering Limited and Shabra Recycling, to try to create a take-back scheme for all the materials that go to six sites of Glenveagh Homes, which is packaging material and the plastics, and then see what the potential is for rolling that out across other materials or other practices. To wrap this piece up, one of the reasons and the business case for creating CIRCULÉIRE was that we needed examples of Irish-use cases and what worked and what did not. There is plenty of best practice but it does not always niche naturally or automatically replicate for different reasons. Until one tries, one does not know what those reasons are.