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An example of where the public sector can lead in a circular economy

Let’s begin at our feet, many workplaces (remember those) use carpet tiles as floor covering, they are flexible and hardwearing.  Back in the 1970’s Interface Inc’s carpet tile making site was one of the environmentally dirtiest industrial sites in North America, it was also the global leader in producing carpet tiles also known as modular flooring.

In 1994 Interface’s founder Ray Anderson experienced a “spear in the chest” epiphany (after reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce), leading Interface to establish Mission Zero, to focus its business on sustainability, aiming to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020.

But you can’t “buy” Interface Carpet tiles. To meet their goals, Interface no longer ‘sell’ carpet tiles, since 2010 they rent them i.e. Interface aim to own their tiles from cradle to grave (and re-use).

In leading a circular economy through public procurement, how many of our tenders would award points to innovative suppliers for renting us the products we tendered to buy?

Why? If you are a supplier committed to a sustainable life cycle for your products and you pass ownership of the product to the user, how do you get it back for recycling or reuse?

I am old enough to remember the introduction of infinitely[1] recyclable PET bottles back in the 1990s. Green team members will know how hard it is to get us to put the right material in the right bin i.e. it will not matter how reusable a product is, if you cannot get it back.

These carpet tile and bottle examples show us a little of how procurement needs to transform to deliver a circular economy; from writing a narrow definition of a product (floor tiles) vs need (floor covering), to all of us re-using tender templates.

Tiles and bottles are one thing, transport is our fastest growing emitter and responsible for 20% of Ireland’s total green house gas emissions.  How often do we tender for vehicles? In my work on behalf of SEAI on the revised EU Green Public Procurement guidance for transport (2015-20), it became apparent that the original 2011 Clean Vehicle Directive (CVD)[2] included transport services.

Many of us have rented cars for work or leisure, so the idea of renting cars is familiar.  Since 2011 Dept of Finance (Capital Investment 2012-16 page 48 4.4) have asked Public Bodies to consider innovative financing arrangements for energy consuming equipment.

Some public bodies have already switched their vehicles to rent/lease,
Cork City Council is putting 76 electric vehicles on the road - Cork City Council.

COVID has shown us how 46% of the workforce were able to work remotely during the first lockdown (Employment and Life Effects of COVID-19 – CSO – Central Statistics Office).


Figure 1 Cork City Council is putting 76 electric vehicles on the road – Cork City Council.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) or renting cars or bikes by the hour, enables an integrated approach to commuting and moving employees from A to B for work, as is required in the Public Sector Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2017 (see requirement for a Workplace Travel Plan page 21) .

Assuming the government sets a target of 40% remote work going forward, what impact will this have on our travel choices, vehicle choice, fleet size and usage?

To go back to where we started at our feet; when did we last challenge a request for a new or replacement vehicle with “can’t you walk or cycle, take the bus or train instead?”

Office politics, status, image and occasional needs (it’s an “emergency”) often trump basic common sense, if we need a vehicle available for employee meetings during the working day would it not make financial sense to have a low-cost car or bike rental available by the hour at the workplace?

And what if that same rental service allowed an employee to use a different car but the same app within walking distance of his or home office or public service hub via their mobile?

Car club (hourly rental) services start at €10 per hour (including fuel/electricity & insurance); with vans and 4x4s that can be driven by employees with a full licence of one year or more.

There are now at least three car club services operating in Ireland and even some turnkey electric bicycle rental providers, to tender for your organisations’ personal mobility needs.

With Green Public Procurement (GPP) now an urgent government priority and transport emissions growing year on year, the opportunity is here for public bodies to at least try these services and make a measurable reduction in cost and emissions.

Thank you for your time, I look forward to seeing your comments or barriers on the use of car clubs and bike rentals below. 

Conor Molloy is an independent energy consultant specialised in transport, he has no commercial relationship with any of the companies or services cited above, he is a Partnership Support Manager (PSM) working on behalf of SEAI’s public sector programme.

Conor would be delighted to see you on PAI’s next Green Public Procurement training taking place on the 10th of March.  If you have any transport related queries, public bodies can contact Conor via their SEAI PSM or EnergyLINK TransportCOP.

Interface was recognized as Recyclers of the Year by the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).[10] In 2006 and 2016, Interface was voted number one in Globescan’s survey of environmentally sustainable businesses.[11] They are also the recipient of The Queen’s Award for Enterprise: Sustainable Development (Environmental Achievement) (2008). Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has heralded Ray Anderson and Interface for their sincere commitment to sustainability and protecting the planet’s natural resources.[12]

Ray Anderson (entrepreneur) – Wikipedia

Where did I get this story, well originally BusinessWeek, but Wikipedia can save us a lot of searching, do subscribe.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interface,_Inc.

An average European car is used for 1-2 hours per day i.e. it spends 92% of its day parked. An old but clear graphic from http://futureofcarsharing.com/ based on data from US based Zipcar.com

There are three equivalent services here in Ireland with no monthly subscription fees.

[1] at the time Eastman Chemical promoted InterRex PET as the world’s first infinitely recyclable plastic

[2] that score only for life cycle costs analysis (LCCA) as the old Clean Vehicle Directive (CVD S.I. No. 339/2011 – European Communities (Clean and Energy-Efficient Road Transport Vehicles) Regulations 2011. (irishstatutebook.ie)) forced us to do.