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Rebooting and rethinking manufacturing

Posted on April 08, 2017 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Time was when a patch sown on to the elbow was not a fashion statement but a timely and thrifty measure to prolong the use of a jacket or jumper. ‘Circular economy’ might be set to become the new buzzword but it is not a new idea.  The discipline of economics (I much prefer the more honest descriptor ‘political economy’) is about choice, finite resources, needs –  and values.  We need to talk about ‘circular economy’ because the resources of the earth are finite and the needs of coming generations are not finite.  Before you switch over to something else thinking that this is another blog about saving the environment or combatting climate change consider that

you and I are part of an inter-connected world where nothing can be entirely separated out from anything else. From dust we came and to dust we return and water – that most precious of things and the most politically contested of subjects right now in Ireland – accounts for 50-70% of our bodies. We are, literally, recycled material. And we are what we eat and what we breathe.  

 A Wikipedia definition of ‘circular economy’ is:

an industrial economy that promotes greater resource productivity aiming to reduce waste and avoid pollution by design or intention, and in which material flows are of two types: biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality in the production system without entering the biosphere as well as being restorative and regenerative by design. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production. [See also Circular Economy Overview]

The reasons for a growing interest in the circular economy concern human well-being and environmental sustainability.  Economists (political economists) and policy makers/shapers need to be challenged to think ecologically and not according to a world of detached and separate entities. Everything and everyone is inter-linked, the corollary of this is that we, each of us, has a duty of ethical solidarity. That is, solidarity with the coming generations as well as the present and solidarity with all people alive today across this single fragile eco-system called planet earth.

Lest anyone should think that ‘circular economy’ is a fancy word and vague concept, the idea of circular economy is highly material in substance concerning, as it does, the material circulation of produced or natural materials in a chain of human activity.  A ‘circular economy’ discourse re-introduces ideas, customs and values that characterised a thrifty economy or locality. This was seen most acutely during times of war when all types of metallic goods were requisitioned and melted down for use in the production of armaments. The medieval English term of ‘tyckner’ or ‘tinkler’ described a noble and skilled occupation of a travelling metal worker. Nowadays, much of what we consume and produce ends up in the ground or in incinerators. Even much of what we ‘recycle’ is exported from Ireland to various destinations for various purposes.  It is hard to locate robust, comparable and meaningful indicators of the extent of recycling.

As the face of manufacturing is transformed by new technologies, new trade routes and shifting patterns of demand we are witnessing ever more complex supply chains criss-crossing borders. The Irish agri-food industry is an example of this.  Brexit will expose the vulnerability of these supply chains more than ever before. Even more crucially, regulatory arrangements reflected in the break-up of the single European market on the island of Ireland (if such is allowed to happen) will impact on producers and consumers across the entire island of Ireland. 

The emerging work on the ‘circular economy’ by the National Economic and Social Council (see here for an outline of a recent policy roundtable) augurs well. Consistent with its mandate as a public organisation reflective of diverse social interests and views, the Council has been very frequently to the fore in promoting consideration of cutting-edge ideas and alternative policy approaches informed by practice in other European states.  The Royal Irish Academy has been involved in a European project which has yielded a very useful Indicators for a circular economy.  Focussing on the circular economy is a very practical way of realising the importance of enterprise policy, indirect taxes and behaviour of individuals and communities in helping move Ireland towards a more sustainable, high value-added model of economic development. It may be that the development of new employee-managed enterprises could begin to make a difference at local level.  Already, some excellent examples of other types of social and commercial enterprises exist in Ireland.  However, left to itself the market cannot resolve the inevitable tensions between sustainable development and individual firm or sector-led development.

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