In recent years the concept of sustainability, and how communities can achieve it, has become increasingly on-trend. As the realisation that natural resources have an expiration date hits and the climate warms, councils are looking at ways to make use of what they have, and reduce waste for future generations.

Creating sustainable solutions is a key focus for councils – encompassing multiple aspects of a community – so instead of introducing stand-alone initiatives many councils are looking for a complete overhaul through the introduction of a circular economy.

Rather than just throwing away waste, a circular system encourages local governments to find sustainable ways to reduce what gets sent to landfill and increase what gets reused.

At Smart Cities 2022, Circular Australia CEO, Lisa McLean, spoke as a keynote speaker, discussing the increasing need for cities to take a circular approach to how they use and consume resources.

Smart Cities is an event which invites leaders in local government to exchange information about innovative technologies and strategies for combating challenges in smart cities and communities around Australia.

Ms McLean has over 14 years of experience as a leader in circular economies, advising industry and government leaders about developing policy to bring about sustainable change in energy, water, waste and mobility sectors in both the UK and Australia.

In her presentation, Ms McLean drew on previous case studies and offered directions for councils to take towards changing their approach to waste disposal.

Circular Australia – previously NSW Circular – is an independent non-profit company which aims to encourage the transition to a circular economy. It has grown from a New South Wales Government Research and Innovation Network, to helping deliver circular economy infrastructure, data and services to businesses, governments and researchers across New South Wales.

There are many initiatives that councils can implement to reduce waste, but ensuring they all work in unison to create a circular economy that delivers sustainable solutions will be imperative heading into the future.

What is a circular economy?

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is all about stopping the production of waste.

Currently, materials and resources are taken from the planet to turn into products, only to eventually be thrown away and new materials sourced for new products.

This linear process means waste builds up and natural resources are depleted. A circular economy instead reuses and recycles to create a circular process that doesn’t finish with waste being useless at the end.

The three aims of a circular economy are to:

1. Eliminate waste and pollution

2. Circulate products and materials

3. Regenerate nature

Ms McLean said a circular economy is an industrial system that’s restorative and regenerative.

“So not only are we designing out waste, but we’re also thinking about how we can create regenerative systems like recycling our water and getting free energy from the sun in a way that reduces carbon and is accessible and affordable for people,” Ms McLean said.

For councils, creating a circular economy could mean changing waste management systems, manufacturing products from recyclable materials, and encouraging businesses to sell waste through incentives.

Local government has a key role to play in initiating the transition to a circular economy, working with partners and the community to get the (circular) ball rolling.

The growing need for a circular approach

Circular economies are focused on changing how communities think and tackle waste. Rather than a take-make-waste system, the life of products can be extended or reused.

Already governments and businesses are taking steps to reduce emissions and minimise the harmful effects of pollution.

For councils, revolutionising waste systems align with this move to create a more sustainable future.

Ms McLean said there couldn’t be a more important system transition for the planet than moving from linear to circular waste disposals.

“Circular economy is an economic framework that can support our future growth and future jobs, but also do some really important things like reducing carbon, designing out waste and changing our fatal consumption model, where we use, throw away and flush away things after using once or twice,” Ms McLean said.

“It’s about decoupling economic growth from virgin resource use and making sure that we all get what we need, but we get it in a way that designs out waste.”

Taking materials and turning them into products, only to be discarded, is not sustainable in the long-term. Many natural resources are finite so eliminating waste and pollution will help ensure there are more resources available for future generations.

Additionally, transitioning to a circular system will build up natural resources rather than deplete them, while sustainable farming practices and increasing biodiversity can return nutrients, resources and resilience to natural environments.

Circular economies also go hand-in-hand with the transition to renewable energy and resources, to remove the wider economy’s reliance on finite resources and aiding governments and businesses with decarbonisation.

“Circular economy is actually tackling almost half of the emissions that we need to cut,” Ms McClean said.

“They’re embedded in food and products like steel, cement, plastics, aluminium, and other things, and circular economy is the mechanism and framework to extract that value out of those products and to cut those carbon emissions.

“So we’re really not going to get to net zero without the circular economy.”

Economic opportunities for Australia

For local governments, circular economies can not only generate environmental benefits, but also financial ones.

European research shows that transitions to circular economies can increase economic growth between 0.8 per cent and 1.4 per cent annually.

Transitioning to a system which eliminates waste can reduce waste disposal costs, with councils even able to receive government funding to set up circular economies.

“The economic opportunity is just growing and growing for circular economies. Globally, it’s sitting around $4.5 trillion, and some recent research is putting that up closer to $7 trillion,” Ms McLean said.

For councils, circular economies can help reduce costs, particularly with waste management and public services, through the reusing of old materials and products, extending circulation and minimising the constant need for replacement.

“Imagine you have one component that you’re selling in a linear economy, you’d be selling it once and waving goodbye to that,” Ms McLean said.

“In a circular economy, you might be leasing that or putting it out as a service and at the end of its life, or when it needs repair, you can take that back, extract all that value out of that component and then put it back in the market again for another, potentially at a lower cost.

“If some value has been shifted out of it, opening up a whole new market that you might not have before.”

Keeping materials out of landfill and in the economy

Landfills have become a significant problem for Australia, with 35 per cent of all waste generated every year ending up in landfill, costing businesses $750 million in waste levies.

“Waste really is the new resource that we should all be mining. Big opportunities to keep materials out of landfill and being burnt and back in the economy,” Ms McLean said.

Another area of concern is repair and upkeep of green energy resources, such as solar panels.

Ms McLean said these renewable energy sources cannot be truly circular if they are being replaced instead of repaired to extend use.

“Micro cracking is another problem that occurs with solar panels,” Ms McLean said.

“So they might be new, but they’re getting cracks so they can’t be used. So how do we start to build the repair industry that can support these valuable pieces of infrastructure going back into the economy?”

Councils and circular economy: it all starts with materials

For councils to start thinking about changing their thinking from linear to circular, it all starts with materials – how materials are sourced, where they are sourced from and whether they can be replaced with other materials.

Some councils are considering the procurement of materials for construction projects.

“If something’s getting demolished, where’s it going at the end of that life? If there’s components that are coming to the end of their life, where are they going?” Ms McLean said.

“Just bringing that lens to thinking about procurement within the council space is really important.”

In terms of the kinds of projects councils can achieve, Ms McLean detailed two initiatives where Circular Australia helped organisations to set up circular waste programs.

Firstly, Circular Australia worked with St Vincent’s Hospital to collect ampules and needle caps to be recycled at Allmould Plastics in regional New South Wales in Orange. The ampules and needle caps were properly cleaned and turned into wind farm components and roller door wheels.

Secondly, partnering with Sydney Water, Circular Australia teamed up to host a workshop for over 60 partners and stakeholders to identify circular strategies which could be employed by local governments.

With Circular Australia’s help, Sydney Water developed the Upper South Creek Advanced Water Recycling Centre in the Western Parkland Centre, with the intention of designing a city which is sustainable.

The water recycling centre will be operational by 2026 and will treat 100 million litres of wastewater each day at maximum capacity.

This development, the workshop and a follow-up leader’s roundtable would then inform a report published by Sydney Water with consultation from Circular Australia – Unlocking the circular economy in the Western Parkland City.

In the report, Sydney Water outlined six key actions which local governments and organisations can take to initiate circular economy opportunities.

These key actions include:

1. Setting targets and policies that help create a circular city

2. Valuing circular economy outcomes in business cases for infrastructure investment

3. Centralising information with a one-stop-shop for circular economy resources

4. Creating systems and incentives to connect circular supply chains

5. Optimising water cycle management for green, cool and climate-resilient cities

6. Aggregating local organic waste collection for energy recovery

These key actions offer an overview of what is necessary to establish and maintain a circular economy, through policies regarding construction and recycling initiatives.

Ms McLean said that the findings from the projects can be used as proof to councils and businesses to develop similar recycling programs.

“In that particular hospital project, we found that there were savings that could go back into hospitals of the order of employing 40 new nurses.

“So we know the benefits there and it’s really important for organisations like ours to be able to provide this evidence base for councils and industry to look at so they can have more confidence in pushing change.”

Changing the way communities think about waste and sustainability

Changing the way communities think about waste and resources can provide opportunities for councils to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change, while also providing financial benefits which can go towards other initiatives.

“If we can expand that circular economic opportunity in these key sectors of health and transport, water, and the built environment, we really have got opportunities to drive hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of new jobs,” Ms McLean said.

Ultimately, Ms McLean believes that circular economies will create a more sustainable and resilient future.

“This is what it’s going to be like as we move into this new future, this new climate-changed future that we’re all facing,” Ms McLean said.

“So how is our infrastructure going to be more local? By providing that local recycling in a way that can create security of supply and move away from the big desalination plants and dams and infrastructure of the past that is just not going to be resilient in this new future.”

Ms McLean said circular economies are not just about reducing carbon, but also looking at those other critical areas of biodiversity loss and natural resource scarcity, pollution, waste and water contamination.

“One statistic I like to use is that there’s now more gold and silver in one ton of iPhones than there is in one ton of ore from a gold or silver mine,” Ms McLean said.

“So there’s phenomenal amounts of resources and value in waste at the moment.”

Investigating how processes can be changed to a circular approach helps councils to set targets, which are the best first steps to transitioning to a circular economy.

Ms McLean said setting targets for collection and reusing waste is also a natural step to follow after setting carbon neutral targets for councils.

“It doesn’t have to be hugely ambitious to start with, but targets are the first step,” Ms McLean said.

“It’s a way in which we can focus our attention and bring that lens to those opportunities.”

Register for free to watch the presentation at Smart Cities 2022 on-demand, by visiting smart-cities.com.au

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