Why a circular economy makes good cents

Published: 5 May 2022

The Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA) hosted the event ‘Why a Circular Economy Makes Good Cents’ on Thursday 7 April 2022 in partnership with the Circular Economy Business Innovation Centre. The event featured a panel of industry leaders and experts including Sustainability Victoria’s Director of Strategic Foresight and Research, Kate Dundas.

What was covered

A panel of experts discussed the challenges and opportunities for transitioning to a circular economy in Australia and we heard directly from Returnr, an organisation that has already made the leap in running a truly circular business operation.

Panel moderator Lindsey Brown, Australian Water Market Leader at GHD opened the session with this key question: what is the circular economy and why are we talking about it?

Lindsey shared some insights from The Ellen McArthur Foundation definition that the circular economy is based on three principles, driven by design:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution.
  • Circulate products and materials (at their highest value).
  • Regenerate nature.

She explained that the circular economy is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials and decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. It is a resilient system that is good for business, people and the environment.

Circular economy thinking is a good idea, but how we actually achieve this was at the heart of the 60-minute discussion. Two main themes emerging in this space are:

  • the importance of taking small steps whilst keeping an eye on the big picture
  • how new partnerships and powerful collaborations can break down organisational barriers to move things forward.

About the speakers

Roch Cheroux, Managing Director, Sydney Water

Roch Cheroux spoke about a report Sydney Water recently released titled: ‘Unlocking the Circular Economy in Western Parkland City’ The report was a collaboration with Sydney Water and NSW Circular where over 60 stakeholders across various industries were involved. Roch explained the key components of that report which include the management of water and waste plus the benefits to the surrounding local community.

View Roch’s LinkedIn profile and Sydney Water’s website.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Scientia Professor - 2022 NSW Australian of the Year, The University of New South Wales

Veena spoke about transforming waste streams and challenged the myth that waste resources are not fit for high quality production. She explained if we’re going to bring circular economy to life, we have to be able to use valuable waste resources in re-manufacturing all kinds of products. She urged us to focus on designing ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘engineered to last’ mentalities and supporting recycling at end of life.[

View Veena’s LinkedIn Profile.

Jamie Forsyth, Director, Returnr

Jamie Forsyth is the founder and CEO of Returnr, a company dedicated to removing single-use packaging from the hospitality industry. Returnr targets high value, environmentally problematic, single-use packaging with an emphasis on transparency. Jamie rephrased the question of today’s event to when can a circular economy make good sense and what conditions you can look for in a circular scheme that is financially viable.

View Jamie’s LinkedIn profile and Returnr’s website.

Tony Grebenshikoff, Vice President Business Australia and New Zealand, Veolia

Tony spoke about the importance of ecological transformations and emphasised the need to act now and make changes whilst leveraging the technology that already exists. He outlined Australia’s current waste generation statistics and the need to extract value from this resource. Tony concluded that the missing link is willpower and determination to really enable these urgent ecological transformations and a transition to circular.

View Tony’s LinkedIn profile and Veolia’s website.

Kate Dundas, Director Strategic Foresight and Research, Sustainability Victoria

Kate shared a Victorian perspective on this issue touching on the Victorian Government’s circular economy plan, Recycling Victoria: A New Economy, how this will evolve in the long term and how government can play a supporting role to industry. Kate rounded out the discussion by stating the circularity might be new, but all evidence tells us it’s here to stay and will be big; so, the opportunity to capitalise on product or service differentiation is now.

View Kate’s LinkedIn profile and Sustainability Victoria’s website.

Event summary highlights

Key takeaways from the event

  • In Australia we’re at the beginning of our transition towards a circular economy, meaning it’s prime time for businesses to get on board and start innovating by rethinking business models and the products and services that they offer to be more circular.
  • If we throw stuff away to simply replace it with something new, we’re throwing away that value, we’re throwing away opportunity and a circular economy means to recognise that opportunity and use it.
  • We already have the ability to engineer waste materials into a range of new products right here in Australia we just need more willpower, determination and regulatory enablers to supercharge this evolution.
  • The circular economy is not just about the waste sector, it’s about total economic reform, about how we design, how we use, how we think about the materials and products that we interact with.

Considerations when starting a circular business model

  • Every business must have a strong value proposition that supports its environmental action.
  • Look at where the value lies in the business by examining other existing models of commercialisation of reuse schemes and return logistics.
  • Look out for a short or closed logistics chain, so you can have greater transparency and control particularly on the return logistics side of things where you can make a huge impact.
  • There are significant challenges both on managing the supply side and meeting consumer needs which creates a huge trade off so be prepared to navigate this.
  • When considering creating reusables within a system, every time something is replaced or re-used, ensure that value is generated every time, and that value can be shared amongst the stakeholders.
  • Creating a re-use scheme also cultivates a direct relationship with your customers and if this service gets positive traction, then people are going to keep coming back to you.

Manufacturing with recycled materials in Australia

  • It is important for Australia to show sovereign capability through local manufacturing and if we can decentralise this and have multiple regional manufacturing facilities this would be a huge step forward.
  • We should invest in more micro-factories which are small-to-medium scale, technologically advanced and highly automated, manufacturing facilities, with a wide range of capabilities and processes.
  • Micro-factories have many benefits to the community and will help advance the future of green manufacturing as a waste to value solution.
  • Due to their technology-driven and highly automated nature, micro-factories require less energy, materials and human resources to operate efficiently.
  • 3D printing technologies should also be considered to produce products from waste materials that can be engineered and customised for many different purposes.

Government influence on enabling a circular economy

  • There are important and encouraging changes in policy settings, e.g taking organics out of landfill, but more should be done to encourage individuals and businesses to change their habits to fully realise a circular economy.
  • More still needs to be done around the responsibility of manufacturers because currently there are not enough incentives for people to think about waste at the beginning and be accountable for it.
  • Government should consider a levy on single-use waste at the supply-side right up front and that could level the playing field for everyone.
  • The new Circular Economy (Waste Reduction and Recycling) Act 2021 will enable greater data collection powers so government can make better decisions by looking at what is collected, how it is collected, when it’s collected, and how it’s analysed.

Relive the event