With 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, there are simply not enough finite resources to continue our throw-away and flush-away habits. The continuous landfilling and incineration of dis-used products containing precious resources such as gold and silver highlights the importance of zero-waste… as well as zero carbon.

Australia is the largest material user per capita in the region, 3rd largest in OECD after Chile. Australia landfills 20m tonnes (27%) waste per year compared to 2% in Netherlands.

Solar panels, electronics, white goods, textiles, appliances, organics destined for the dump contain earth’s valuable and usable resources: For example, there is now more gold and silver in a tonne of iPhones than a tonne of ore from a gold or silver mine. 

So how do we grow our local and global economies in a resource and carbon-constrained future? 

The answer is the circular economy. By decoupling economic growth from the consumption of finite resources, the circular economy provides the sustainable framework we need to build the jobs and industries of the future. There are big rewards for those organisations making the circular transition - it’s a $2 trillion economic opportunity for Australia.1

The circular economy is not just about managing waste, it's a systems transition. Every single sector - business, government, community and consumer has a role to play by changing their behaviour, changing supply chains to design out waste - still getting what they need, but not always by consuming and throwing away. 

For Circular Australia, success relies on three principles, designing waste and pollution out of the existing system, keeping products and materials in use and at their highest value, and regenerating natural ecosystems.

Capitalising on a ‘perfect storm’

In Australia, a ‘perfect storm’ is occurring, bringing the circular economy to the forefront. The introduction of the Australian federal Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 is banning the export of waste streams and forcing organisations to be responsible for domestic waste streams in plastic, paper, and other recyclables.

The disruption to global supply chains caused by the COVID pandemic and the impact of the geopolitical landscape on trade including the war on Ukraine is changing the status quo.

A great example is Circular Australia’s work in the healthcare sector. Through its Circular Supply Chain Alliance Program, St. Vincent's Hospital Sydney, Allmould Plastics in Orange NSW and University of NSW worked together to create a new supply chain for plastic waste. During the height of the pandemic the hospital collected plastic ampoules and needle caps that would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled. These high quality plastics were redirected to the Allmould Plastics facility where they were moulded into roller door wheels and wind farm components. Savings the equivalent of 40 new nursing and 10 new regional manufacturing jobs were identified if this circular approach were scaled across NSW public hospitals.

The complexity of managing the supply chain process highlights the importance of collaboration, as the task is too big for one government, sector or business on their own. 

Education is the first step

Today, Australia’s circular economy remains nascent compared to more advanced global peers. Estimates suggest that 4% to 5% of Australia’s economy is circular compared to Finland, which is targeting 100% by 2025.

Like the trajectory for mitigating carbon emissions, our journey starts by increasing transparency of data and disclosure. We need to make data around waste streams more accessible to businesses and to all Australians, this will help catalyse new business opportunities and build awareness for action.

The next step is reporting on what products are made of and educating businesses and consumers about harmful chemicals. Once that’s established, mandating bans on certain materials, policies that design them out of the process and supply chain and creating best practices can follow.

Gaining critical mass

Consumers also need every opportunity and motivation to participate in the circular economy; encouragingly, we are seeing more and more services emerge.

According to Gumtree, participation in the circular economy is up [26%] this year and people could earn about $7,000 just by going to their cupboards and reselling on the platform. When considering value in reuse, Facebook Marketplace is also just as vibrant. In addition, we’re seeing ‘as-a-service’ alternatives such as shared mobility, fashion or white goods-as-a-service, have a similar impact. Here consumers are saving thousands by not paying upfront costs to own a car, fashion or white goods - but still getting what they need through a subscription instead.

The trend here is that personal economics can change for consumers, and they are engaging with those incentives. Convenience and collaboration also make it easier. We see this through the positive response to council programs, initiatives like tool libraries where you can borrow a mower, or community produce farming.

At Circular Australia, we talk about the ‘Nine R’s’ as a hierarchy which can make a substantial economic impact if accompanied by a consumer mindset shift. The first is refuse, where someone can decide not to buy something new and look for a sustainable alternative. Rethink is the second, which is about questioning behaviours.

Followed by reducing and reusing where online marketplaces can play a role, then repair, refurbish, remanufacture, and repurpose. The final ‘Rs’ are recycle and recover which come at the very end.

The business imperative

There is no doubt manufacturers and the businesses that procure products must take responsibility for what’s in the products they make. Products must be safe, recyclable and designed to stay in the economy for as long as possible - and here product stewardship plays a critical role.

While supply chain issues may create a barrier for businesses to sourcing sustainable materials, taking early action starts with knowledge. Big or small, businesses can take proactive steps to understand what is in their products. Then account for it, examine waste streams, where these go once collected. It’s only then business practices can be changed at scale.

Just as Boardrooms began the carbon reduction journey by disclosing their carbon footprints a decade and a half ago, they must again be brave and now look to disclose their waste streams, taking action to design out waste. Almost half the emissions we need to cut to meet our net zero emissions targets are embedded in products and food. We simply won't get to net zero without a circular economy to tackle these hidden emissions.

Many consumer-facing businesses are making great strides in advancing the circular economy. Just take a look at The Circle Awards to see some amazing circular businesses offering awesome products and services. These join companies like Phillips offering ‘lighting-as-a-service’ by leasing bulbs and Glam Corner and their fashion-as-a-service where high-end garments remain in the economy.

Above all, at this early stage of such a crucial transition, we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly…we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

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    The information and statistics in this article have been obtained from Circular Australia. The Bank believes that the information in this article is correct and any opinions, conclusions or recommendations are reasonably held or made, based on the information available at the time of its compilation, but no representation or warranty, either expressed or implied, is made or provided as to accuracy, reliability or completeness of any statement made in the article. Any opinions, conclusions or recommendations set forth are subject to change without notice. The Commonwealth Bank does not accept any liability for loss or damage arising out of the use of all or any part of the article.

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