Australian researchers & industry looks to ‘circular economy’

6 May 2015

The concept of the circular economy is receiving great interest in business, political and environmental circles. So what is the circular economy and why should Australians care about it?

Circular economy thinking is re-energising and re-imagining the traditional practices of reuse, repair and recycling by promoting new design and whole-system thinking to capture new value and grow new markets that impact the entire economy.

So what has prompted this recent interest? Along with pressures of depleting resources and increasing consumption of products, managing growing volumes of waste is becoming a global challenge.

According to a recent UN report, the volume of e-waste, including everyday products such as microwaves, toasters, mobile phones and cameras, reached 41.8 million tonnes globally in 2014. The value of the resources that could be potentially be reused or recycled in these products is around US $52 billion, yet less than one sixth of this was collected for recovery. Alongside valuable metals e-waste also contains hazardous substances that cause health problems and environmental damage when not disposed of correctly. This growing volume of e-waste is an environmental and social problem, but it also presents an economic opportunity.

Key to a circular economy is avoiding the creation of waste in the first place, and considering any waste that does get created as a valuable resource. In the current “take-make-dispose” economy resources are discarded to landfill. Currently in Australia only about half the waste we generate is being recycled. In a circular economy this value could be captured with new products that are designed to last, to be repaired and reused, or their materials remanufactured into entirely new products.

According to Associate Professor Damien Giurco at the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF), both government and business are already adopting these practices. “Industry and government are increasingly focused on the benefits of applying more circular business models as it represents an opportunity to help reduce our dependence on cheap raw materials to make a successful business.”

“Forward thinking businesses are taking advantage of the opportunity to sell services rather than products and providing convenience and flexibility to consumers. With the ubiquity of digital technology and social media we are more connected than ever before, allowing new business models based on sharing and collaboration,” Giurco says.

Researchers at ISF and UTS Business School are exploring the concepts of circular economy and opportunities for metals and metal bearing products, including e-waste, as part of the Wealth from Waste Research Cluster. The Cluster is a three-year AU$9-million national research initiative led by UTS, in collaboration with four Australian universities and Yale University in the US.

Research within the Cluster has identified that there is more than AU$2 billion in value of waste metal in Australia each year that is not harnessed, enough to provide half the nation’s annual metal consumption. Along with colleagues at the UTS Business School, ISF are evaluating opportunities for Australian businesses to capture this value through new models of production and consumption, such as leasing high-value metals for use in high-tech products like lithium for batteries in electric vehicles.

At the World Economic Forum it was estimated that the circular economy would be worth US$1-trillion by 2025. But Australian needs to be planning for how to access a piece of the pie. To this end, ISF is developing an ‘Action Agenda’ for delivering the circular economy to activate a transition for Australia to a circular world.

The Action Agenda identifies opportunities for the circular economy in key sectors of the Australian economy, including mining, manufacturing, services and resource recovery, and will be launched in June by Dr Giurco at the World Resources Forum Asia-Pacific, the first international conference to be held in Australia with a specific focus on the concepts of the circular economy. “The Action Agenda can assist businesses and policymakers looking to innovate to identify new pathways and opportunities to for value within the Australian economy.”

ISF is hosting the World Resources Forum Asia Pacific, alongside SMaRT@UNSW from the University of New South Wales. The forum will bring together a broad group of policymakers, business leaders and academics to look at the economic, social and environmental aspects of resource use. An annual global event, this is the first time the forum will be held in Australia with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

The event will look at a diverse range of topics, and feature speakers from UTS alongside experts from Japan, India, China, USA, Europe and across Australia. The UTS Business School is running an industry-focused workshop on circular business models, featuring two leading Australian entrepreneurs: ISF Research Principal Dr Nick Florin is hosting a workshop on transition strategies for using future carbon-based energies and materials, such the integration of bio-based energy into carbon reuse and recycling; and Dr Dana Cordell and Dr Stuart White will present their award-winning work on phosphorus, looking at issues of resource governance and social responsibility.

The forum will also include interactive workshops run in partnership with leading organisations including the World Wide Fund for Nature, Sustainability Victoria, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Zero Waste International Alliance and the CSIRO.

For more information, visit wrfasiapacific2015.net, sign up for the mailing list or contact Dr Nick Florin at Nick.Florin@uts.edu.au or +61 2 9514 4797.