Building Northern Ireland's circular economy to bring its consumption within sustainable levels

Northern Ireland's vision of the circular economy centres on sustainable development: a means for prosperous lives within the ecological limits of our planet, with the workforce an essential lever for achieving this goal. Our Circularity Gap Report Northern Ireland finds that the country has the power to transform its economy: by doubling its circularity, it can halve the resources needed to fulfil its residents' needs and wants, opening up avenues to slash emissions and reach its net-zero goals.
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Over 90% of Northern Ireland's material use stems from virgin sources

Only 7.9% of the resources Northern Ireland uses are cycled back into the economy after use. Or in other words: more than 92% of Northern Ireland's resources come from virgin sources. The country's (per capita) material footprint of 16.6 tonnes far surpasses the global average of 11.9 tonnes. Such overconsumption exhausts the planet's vital ecosystems and threatens our quality of life.
Circularity metric
Dive further into the resource use behind Northern Ireland's economy
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In meeting the needs of its residents—and exporting elsewhere in the world—Northern Ireland extracts a moderate 14.6 tonnes of resources per capita per year within its borders, contributing to its high material footprint: this rate of extraction far exceeds the UK average, which sits at 5.5 tonnes per capita. It drives extensive biomass and mineral extraction in particular.

But how do you drop the resource use of a developed economy without negatively impacting current quality of life?

By building a circular economy, Northern Ireland can cut its material consumption roughly in half.
Our analysis reveals that by implementing a set of circular strategies, such as shifting to healthier diets and using materials at their highest value for as long as possible in sectors such as manufacturing and construction, Northern Ireland can bring material consumption per capita close to a level considered sustainable: 8 tonnes per person per year.

Circular roadmap:

Circular roadmap: six opportunities to halve resource use in Northern Ireland and double its circularity
Nurture a circular food system
Material consumption reduced by 16.5%

The material footprint of Northern Ireland's agri-food sector is high: large quantities of biomass are imported for animal feed, and while emissions-intensive meat and dairy products are exported, these foods also feature high on the menu.

To reduce the high environmental footprint of the agri-food sector, we recommend that Northern Ireland overhauls its food system by consuming food within a healthy range, promoting healthy diets (i.e. reducing consumption of meat and dairy) while putting sustainable food production into practice (i.e. prioritising low-input agriculture and, where possible, growing food organically, locally and seasonally).
Build a circular built environment
Material consumption reduced by 10.5%

Northern Ireland's built environment consumes vast amounts of materials as the country's growing population, geography and low population density exert pressure on the need for housing and infrastructure.

To reduce material consumption, we recommend that Northern Ireland makes the built environment sector more circular by optimising its building stock expansion (i.e. using secondary materials and increasing retrofitting and renovation), making resource-efficient construction the norm (i.e. cutting construction losses and using durable and lightweight elements) and increasing building occupancy (i.e. incentivising co-housing and multifunctional spaces).
Champion circular manufacturing
Material consumption reduced by 8.2%

Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector has a substantial material and carbon footprint. Innovation efforts largely focus on decarbonisation, while strong strategies backing material efficiency and new business models are lacking.

To reduce consumption, we recommend that Northern Ireland implements resource efficient manufacturing (i.e. improving industrial processes and reducing virgin inputs for key manufacturing industries) and employs R-strategies for key industries (i.e. increasing services such as remanufacturing, repair and maintenance) to cut the sector’s resource use as well as strengthen its competitiveness and resilience.
Power clean mobility
Material consumption reduced by 5.9%

Car use in Northern Ireland is high and penetration of low emission vehicles is the lowest in the UK, while the appetite for bigger cars is growing and a reliance on private transport prevails.

To reduce the material footprint of transport and mobility, which is highly dependent on fossil fuels, we recommend that Northern Ireland embraces a car-free lifestyle through an improved modal shift and flex work (i.e. by promoting car-sharing to optimise vehicle use, while reducing compulsory travel to work) and prioritises efficient vehicles and electrifies the fleet (i.e. driving smaller, more efficient cars and electrifying buses and private vehicles).
Leverage public procurement
Material consumption reduced by 2.9%

In Northern Ireland, the public sector makes up a substantial part of the economy and wields major spending power. But, despite the public sector holding huge power to drive sustainability and circularity through public procurement, opportunities go largely unfulfilled.

The public sector can become a strong driver of circularity by making the management of public building stock more circular (i.e. through the (deep) retrofitting of older public buildings) and by ensuring that publicly procured food supports a circular food system (i.e. prioritising healthy and sustainable diets in public locales like hospitals and schools, with food waste minimisation).
Welcome a circular lifestyle
Material consumption reduced by 13.5%

In high-income nations, the overconsumption of products and services ranging from textiles and electronics to plastics and travel has a massive environmental and social impact.

By embracing a 'material sufficiency' lifestyle, such as only using circular textiles, adhering to a minimalist lifestyle for furniture and home appliances, using non-market and community-based services for repairs, and heavily reducing consumption of plastics, Northern Ireland can cut its material consumption by a massive 13.5%.


Our analysis found that 8.9% of the employed labour force in Northern Ireland are contributing to the circular economy, either directly or indirectly.
The vast majority of these circular jobs—just over 78% of the total—are indirectly circular: mainly generated through demand for core circular products or services by the manufacturing, health and social work, administrative services, and construction sectors, this goes to show that jobs across sectors will have a key role to play in supporting the circular economy.
Increasing circular jobs
Increasing circular jobs can be achieved by stimulating core sectors—from renewable energy and repair and maintenance, to reuse and recycling—as well as redirecting enabling sectors such as finance, research, design and digital services to serve key tenets of circularity, such as waste prevention or regeneration.

Championing the circular economy, championing sustainability

The transition to the circular economy provides Northern Ireland with a unique opportunity to reduce the material footprint of its consumption almost by half—and in turn, bring its economy within sustainable levels without compromising social standards.

Northern Ireland is well poised to spearhead a circular transition: boasting already-strong commitments from the government, growing collaboration between business and academia, and huge opportunities for impactful change across sectors, the country has all the conditions needed to build its circular economy and shape a more resource-efficient, environmentally friendly and socially just socioeconomic model.

The Circularity Gap Report Northern Ireland guides the way.


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