"A Circular Economy Makes a Society Happier"

Since the linear economy depends on finite resources, it has no long-term future. Climate change and the plastics crisis are a result. Many scientists agree that only a circular economy can be successful in the long run. We spoke to Kevin O'Connor about the problems, solutions and advantages of the new approach.

  • Dear Kevin, as a professor you are dealing almost daily with young, inquisitive people – Generations who know about the effects of our careless use of resources. Nevertheless, very few of them have ever heard of the term "circular economy". Why? 

I agree, a lot of people don’t know what a circular economy is even if they know about stopping food waste, recycling, and less packaging. It’s still a term that is more important in professional circles. This is probably since many awareness-raising campaigns on sustainability were not always linked to the economic system. 

  • So, let’s raise some awareness on that. What exactly does a circular economy mean? 

O’Connor: First, it’s important to know that the Circular Economy is not just about recycling. It’s really about resources efficiency and the smart use of our resoruces. If we are going to use a resource to produce a product, we need to minimize the amount of substances and materials and design it so it has a long life, can be re-used, repaired, disassembled and re-purposed. So products need to be designed that it is much easier to keep reusing them. A box is a simple example: if you design it so that it is made from materials that are locally sourced made in a way that does not cause pollution or create waste, can be disassembled, you design it so that is doesn’t need glue and thus make it easier to recycl and repurpose it. If you had component parts, people have sections in the box and you can take them apart, so that each component can be re-used or has a value for re-purposing. There’s another example from our daily life: The handle of your toothbrush lasts for 20 years, but the head of the toothbrush wears quickly down. But then you throw the whole toothbrush away.  What about replaceable heads?  How do you design the head? Is it going to be so that the bristles on the toothbrush are easy to take out and replace or do you replace the the head? That’s what we are talking about in a circular economy. Right now, we have the “take it, make it and dump it”-Paradigm. In a circular economy, you can take, you can make – but you should be able to reuse. And what you take, you shouldn’t take too much of. This applies to all sectors and everyone has a responsibility. If you are making a car and have by-products in the factory, it’s the car manufacturer that should try to reuse that in the factory, for example use it in other cars or other components around the factory. We need short-closed circular economies within a factory, within a community, even a household.

"The idea of the circular economy is to extend the life of products and let the product be the resource for a new product. A circular economy is about smart design."
- Kevin O'Connor
  • So, any kind of waste suddenly gets its own value?  

Yes. We should always keep in mind the question: what happens to the product at the end of its life? The idea of the circular economy is to extend the life of products and let the product be the resource for a new product. A circular economy is about smart design. 

  • It is often said that the approach of reusing resources is close to human nature – although the economic principle has been focused for centuries on “better, bigger, faster". How does that fit together? 

Well, the idea of using every part of a resource and recycling/reusing that reource has been with us since the dawn of civilisation! If you look at societies that we call poor – they tend to be better at resource efficiency, they tend to be better at recycling and reusing materials. I’m remembering seeing a tv program about indigenous people living near the arctic. They use everything when they captured a seal: they use the bones and teeth for tools, they use the meat and organs for food, the skin for fabrics, and the fats as a source of light (oil lamps) and heat (fuel)  – they just use everything in that animal because they had limited resources and they know their value. Resource management has been with us for thousands of years. A glimpse of that can be seen in agriculture: farmers spread animal waste (manure) as fertiliser and they are effectively recycle nutrients.  We know that traditional methods of manure spreading leads to greenhouse gas emissions but modern techniques of spreading can help to return nutrients to the soil and have less GHG emissions.  Also manure is being used in anaerobic digestion to produce biogas which can be used to produce energy for the farm.  I think it’s ancient – and the future. Now it’s time to rediscover and further develop those natural principles. 

  • But how? The issue of sustainability might be in the most people’s mind nowadays. But not so the term of a circular economy. 

The key is education and communication and it starts in the schools. You can spend a lot of money on communicating with adults, but for me it has always been about communicating with children. They can easily integrate it in their life and mindset when their hear messages about saving the planet, being environmentally friendly, reducing waste, recycling They are looking to the future, their future whereas adults who have other focuses….just think: “yes, the planet is important – but I have to get back to work, pay the bills, collect the children, deal with life”. You can spend a lot of money on campaigns, but yet people are still confused. Children will respond positively and it can more easily become part of their lives. While this approach is a kind of a long-term campaign, I do think that shorter term impacts can also be achieved through social media because young people respond to that as well. And you need champions, you see this with the climate action movement. 

  • Well, students really cannot change an economic system from the ground up. 

Not fully but they can drive change in those that have more influence and see them as the consumers of the future.  I see the change in behaviour of big brands coinciding with the voice of young people like Greta Thornberg.  Those who are smart listen to her and those who are afraid of what she has to say either fight her or try to knock her. What it takes to change the world is huge but the mindset and actions of young people are the basis for change. An angry reaction to the truth in many ways is a greater validation of your ideas than a gentle agreeing nod.  We need regulations from government to stimulate change in human behaviour but we also need commercial and citizen behavioural change.  They need to tax things that are environmentally unfriendly, that do not fit into a circular economy but also incentivise the good behaviour.  That means: if you produce a product that is not recyclable it will be more expensive i.e. If you don’t design for recycling, you will pay a higher price. If you overpack products then the cost of the product should be higher.  This is controversial but we need to reduce wasteful use of resources We have to use the polluter pays principle but people need choices and they need to be able to make informed choices. If you as a manufacturer want to produce a product, it’s your responsibility what happens to it at the end of life. In Ireland we had a plastic bag tax, and it reduced the use of plastic bags by 90 percent in one year. That’s a very good way of raising awareness. People are now going to the supermarkets with their bags that last for 20 or 30 years. Information and regulations in economy are both part of the solution.

"I think it’s ancient – and the future. Now it’s time to rediscover and further develop those natural principles."
- Kevin O'Connor about the principles of a circular economy
  • The global report published by 17 global companies has drawn up a best-case scenario that includes expanding waste collection rates in the middle-/low-income countries to 90 per cent in all urban areas and 50 per cent in rural areas by 2040. Do you think this is realistic? 

I think it is ambitious, but it is achievable. It depends on policy and on global cooperation. It depends on how you incentivize those changes and how you disincentivize bad behaviour. If you incentivize for example collecting waste by paying the people for every bottle or piece of plastic they bring back, you give value to the waste and it won’t end up in the environment but in a recycling facility. Low-income countries of course will struggle but this is a global problem and we need to co-operate and help each other.  Governments all over the world need to recognise that to increase activity in the circular economy, you need to spend money, you need to invest and co-operate. 

  • Do you think that politics and the infrastructure are ready to embark on such a radical change? 

The European commission is pushing very strongly for this change. And there are also people in Ireland’s government and civil service that want the change. One reason is: south east Asia is closed for plastic waste. Governments are now wondering: What am I doing with all this waste? That’s a reality now. So, there is a political will. Is the infrastructure ready? I don’t think so. I don’t think that the recycling system is ready. It might be ready for some increase in recycling, but it’s not ready for new materials such as biobased plastics and not ready for biodegradable plastic. Not at a scale that we need but with the right investment it can evolve to have the capacity and capability required.  

  • And what about the people – you and me? Are we ready for this? You emphasized that sustainable change begins in our mindset. 

Well, it depends a lot on people’s knowledge and how expensive it’s going to be. Some citizens are very well informed and willing to make a positive change. But you also have those people who say: I don’t care. It’s not my problem, it’s the governments problem. Don’t burden me with these problems. I think these are the two ends of a spectrum. Penalties may look like the solution for not doing the right thing but this is not always the answer.  People need to buy in to an idea, be incentivised.  This is what I mean by investment.  Invest in changing behaviour.  Make it easier for people to change. Prevention of waste is better than dealing with the waste.  Maybe that could be an answer here. There is a danger that you create what we can call climate poverty or circular economy poverty: Only those who can afford can do the right thing, or are willing to do it. So, looking at the average citizen, you need to incentivize these things. You need to show them the benefits. 

  • Unfortunately, the benefits are not always obvious. 

Some of them may not be obvious, but after a while doing it, people will gradually see the difference. The circular economy also asks for short supply chains, so if you use local resources, you’re investing money in local jobs and that money is invested in your community. The circular economy offers new job opportunities and creates entrepreneurs, new knowledge-based jobs. So, if you support it, you create new jobs for all those that build up a circular economy – be it new forms of packaging, household goods, bicycles, cars, energy production and consumption. I think the circular economy can create different opportunities for society because the awareness creates a sense of well-being, a happiness with your society. It’s simple: if people feel they can have a positive impact on their environment, they feel good about supporting their local circular economy. 

  • So, a circular economy makes a society happier? This could be one of the biggest incentives. 

I think it can create jobs but this raising of awareness for your environment by implementing a circular economy can give you a sense of belonging to your community – one of the most important things for human beings from a social perspective… 

  • …which is closely linked to take responsibility for your community. Whose responsibility is most important for a successful change – the individuals, the politicians or the industrials? 

Well, it may sound paradoxical, but they are the same and they are not the same. They are the same because we all must take responsibility. One the one hand, industry and politicians must take a greater responsibility. But provided they supply citizens with choices and with the opportunity to take part in a circular economy, now the individual has to take responsibility. I give you an example: If I go to a supermarket and want apples that have minimal packaging, packaging made from renewable or recycled local resources or no plastic packaging, I have to have a choice. If this choice isn’t offered, you can’t look to the people and say: it’s your responsibility to be circular. The manufacturer has to ensure that they are providing the citizens with packaging or materials that can be recycled, that are circular and that are reducing the consumption of virgin materials. In the same way the individual has to be responsible to buy the provided alternatives. The manufacturer won’t offer sustainable packaging if no supermarket is selling or no people are buying the products. The politicians have the responsibility to offer a legal framework that supports sustainable products. You need the policy, the industry, and the consumer to ensure opportunity for all. A coordinated action is much more effective. 

"It’s simple: if people feel they can have a positive impact on their environment, they feel good about supporting their local circular economy."
- Kevin O'Connor about why a circular economy creates happier societies
  • Does that mean among others that I need to give feedback to the industry why I bought or intentionally avoided to buy a certain product? 

That’s a part of the solution. But it’s not as effective if one individual goes to the supermarket or a manufacturer and just says: I want more choices.  Often to inform the stakeholders you need an effective campaign. There have been campaigns encouraging people to take their packaging back to the supermarket to show them how much packaging waste is being generated and asking them to reduce that packaging. 

  • And these packaging are mostly made of plastic based on fossil raw materials. This is also the subject of the MIX-UP research project in which you are involved for developing methods to integrate plastic into the cycle and replace it by biomaterials that can also be integrated into the cycle. How does this work? 

Right now, most of our plastic comes from oil and gas. They will be replaced by biobased plastics sooner or later, that’s unquestionable. People are working on making an identical equivalent for fossil-based plastic bottle that is biobased, for example plastic made from sugar cane. But there’s another issue: What happens to all the fossil-based plastic that already exists? Or new biobased plastics? We are co-operating with scientists across Europe and China on developing methods to degrade petrochemical plastics with enzymes and metabolize it into biodegradable plastic. Then it’s ready for the natural (biodegradable) and the technical (recycling) circle. Plastic then is recyclable, biological, biobased, biodegradable, and compostable. So in in the cycle you either send the plastic in the technical sphere of the economy where it’s recycled and can be used multiple times, or you send it to the biological sphere in a managed facility.  This happens when at the end of its life when the quality decreases and it can’t be recycled anymore. Then it can be composted and thus returned to nature. It’s always a closed loop. And you can’t achieve this with a petrochemical plastic unless you have the method of MIX-UP. 

  • do you think that these bioplastics can be integrated into current recycling options, or would mechanical recycling become history?  

Mechanical recycling is very much part of the future for bioplastics as well. But of course, we want to make sure that we don’t overproduce bioplastics just for replacing fossil with bio. That’s not how we stop the great amount of waste on earth. I think we have to be smarter and say: this is an opportunity to reduce the overall amount of plastic we use. And when we do use, we should move 100 percent to biobased. And in some case, the biobased should be recyclable such as components of a car or a computer. Where you could have biodegradable is where you know that it’s highly likely to be contaminated by food or other things (tooth brush head!). Mechanical recycling of plastic that is contaminated with food is very difficult, so you should make it compostable. Then it’s very easy: If I’s contaminated with food – it can be composted. If it’s not, it can be mechanically recycled. 

  • Which biodegradable plastics do you see as most promising for the future in terms of design, functionality, and integration into a closed loop economy? 

Right now, there are two front runners thermoplastic starch (also called TPS)  and polylactic acid, because they are already in the market and have multiple applications. They are going to make a big impact in terms of biobased and biodegradable. Polylactic acid can enter into both circles, the recycling circle and the back-to-nature-circle. There will also be biobased polyethylene. But PE and PET are biobased but nondegradable, so they are only going to the technical circle. That’s a problem that needs to be solved. As already mentioned, MIX-UP is enabling the movement of nondegradable plastics into the biological circle.  

  • Dear Kevin, thank you very much for the interview!