Paul Butler

Enterprise Ireland


Sustainability in a modern world – Is it possible?


Consumers increasingly recognize that the money they spend supports a whole system, and that they can choose between organic food and factory farms, coal burning plants and wind generation, fair trade and exploited Third World workers. Today, we can learn a lot about the companies behind the items we purchase, and once we know, it’s hard not to make conscious — and conscientious — choices. Companies are starting to grasp this.

This case study proposes an examination of the waste hierarchy, the 3’R’s; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle and identifies that not enough is being done to prevent product going straight to recycling. It offers a brief examination of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach of good design and asks should industry not be moving in this conscientious direction.


I had the pleasure before Christmas of meeting a senior in REPAK. He told me about the Organisation’s not-for-profit status, being owned through fees by its members. These fees he told me are ‘used to subsidise the collection and recovery of waste packaging through ‘recovery
’ operators in Ireland’.  Its success to date has been significant, funding the diversion of 10.1 million tonnes of used packaging, equivalent to over 300 million green bins and a 9.4 million tonnes of carbon equivalent savings.  We spoke about a project that will see tonnes of small particle glass being modified and see its products used in several sectors as filler, filters and reflectors.  This is a project that Enterprise Ireland are interested in supporting; it has the potential to develop jobs and exports, while addressing a waste stream with no commercial value while acting as an alternative to many of the microplastics entering the environment. While this project and technology development has the potential to take tens of tonnes of ‘valueless’ glass and up-cycle it through processing to become a valuable material, there was still the issue with the many hundreds of tonnes that REPAK deal with, most of which ends up in landfill.

We got talking about how to reduce this ‘mountain’ of glass and how design can play a significant role in reducing the volume entering the waste stream and how greater reuse could reduce these single use bottles being broken up, that are generating the waste stream. This in effect, is something called the “waste hierarchy”. This is the order of priority of actions to be taken to reduce the amount of waste generated, and to improve overall waste management processes and programs. The waste hierarchy consists of 3 R’s as follows:

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Called the “three R’s” of waste management, this waste hierarchy is the guidance suggested for creating a more sustainable society.  Reduce the amount we produce, Reuse it where possible and Recycle as much as possible. Of paramount importance is the order, which has been largely overlooked, reducing material (and the necessary ancillary energy costs) together with reusing can have a significant saving, not to mention reduction in carbon footprint. Instead, we have gone directly to ‘Recycling’, passing ‘GO’ and not collecting £200.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ takes a radically different philosophy and practice of manufacture and environmentalism. They take the 3R’s a step further and argue that significantly less damage can be done by adopting a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach rather than the generally accepted industrial revolution’s ‘Cradle to Grave’. Their thesis essentially expounds the virtues of good design and its ability to affect in f
ar greater ways than the current cycle we have come to know; “We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans design products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe
that our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

According to Cradle to Cradle, waste (which is what most pollution is) is a product of bad design. Regulations are enacted to control waste, but the message of regulation is, “Be less bad.” Good design, the authors argue, says, “Be good.” Traditionally, designers of economic processes tried to increase profits and reduce costs. The easiest way to do that was to “externalize” waste as pollution. But as “away” gets closer to home, that becomes less acceptable. “Change the game”, say McDonough and Braungart, by “changing the objectives”; don’t seek only to profit financially, seek a more profitable solution; design well, pass ‘GO’ and collect £200.

About Dr Paul Butler:

Dr. Paul Butler is a Snr. Commercialisation Specialist with the research and Innovation division of Enterprise Ireland. He is involved in the commercialisation of research out of 3rd level and has  particular responsibility for Energy, Construction and Green Technologies.

About Enterprise Ireland:

Enterprise Ireland is the government organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. It works in partnership with Irish enterprises to help them start, grow, innovate and win export sales in global markets. In this way, it supports sustainable economic growth, regional development and secure employment.



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