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Understanding the shift towards a successful circular economy

22 December 2020
Five key learnings from the 2nd Australian Circular Economy Conference
What does ‘green’ concrete and material flow data have in common? They are both ways Australia can continue its shift towards the circular economy that were raised at the latest Australian Circular Economy Conference.

Unlocking value from waste resources through collaboration and technology, and better design were the key talking points of the 2nd Australian Circular Economy Conference, co-hosted by the University of Sydney’s Waste Transformation Research Hub, the Sydney Knowledge Hub, NSW Circular and the Association of the Asia Pacific Rim of Universities.

The conference was designed to provide government, industry and university leaders in the Asia-Pacific region opportunities to deliberate on the progress, innovation and benefits of a circular economy, with a particular spotlight shone on industries and business already actively using circular economy principles.

Here are five key learnings from the event.


A gold mine of untapped potential

Repurposing material rather than simply disposing of it is always the preferred option when compared to the outdated linear economy, that is to simply take and throwaway material.

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, explained the scale of the untapped opportunity around transitions to circular economies. NSW Circular outlined that the extraction of virgin materials would not sustain society beyond 2050, which is why the time is now right for investment into circularity to occur. It is a growing area valued at in trillions of dollars internationally and projected to add as much as $210 billion to Australia’s overall GDP by 2050.

Services and product should be built on circular design. Many novel business solutions were presented and are ready to be implemented. Better design and design thinking in manufacturing are a cornerstone in the circular economy; products and services should  acknowledges circularity through reduce and reuse characters, ‘designing out waste' and eliminating products unfit for circulation while being intuitive, accessible, and comprehensible. Every new product should follow circular economy principles, reducing waste by establishing circularity at the creation stage.  

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The absence of a holistic and agreed definition

There is currently much debate surrounding a unified definition of what in fact the “circular economy” is.

The idea emerged from fragmented scientific concepts of sustainable development such as industrial ecology or natural capitalism. Over time, it has evolved to mean a number of various things depending on local community cultural perspectives and how it is incorporated as policy and guidelines.

Recycling and closing the loop alone do not encompass the true circular economy, which must acknowledge the full supply chain to maximise the materials use efficiency as much as possible, keeping products and materials in service for as long as possible.

There is a need for an intergovernmental definition of the circular economy, agreed by all members of the community that remains relevant across different industries. The definition should establish the expectation and standard by being comprehensible, translatable, and measurable.  

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Data as enabler: Where, what and how waste resources are repurposed

The absence of experience in the circular economy can lead to instances of uncertain investment incentives and unclear understanding of market directions.

One solution to overcome this ambiguity is through data collection and modelling, both serving to architect the circular economy transformation correctly. An example of data collection and modelling could be every local council reporting their waste composition and properties through an agreed standard.

While challenging, transparency on materials flows and wide-scale collaboration are needed, that would allow evidence-driven policies. For the private sector, the model would identify the bottlenecks in the supply change and allow a swift adjustment by unravelling business opportunities, as shown now by such organisations as Mercularis and ASPIRE. 

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Green construction: Putting value into waste

The construction industry has been a significant contributor to carbon emissions through the energy-intensive process of cement manufacturing. This presents a large opportunity to utilise many unrecyclable, stockpiled waste, aggregates, and industrial by-products.

Seeing the opportunity, local government along with private entities are using these immense volumes of materials including recycled asphalt, concrete, ash, plastic, tyres, and glass to replace traditional construction materials.

This also means the avoidance of increased landfilling and reducing the need for virgin material. With rapid urbanisation, such sustainable materials are increasing in their reuse potential and contributing to fill the circularity gap.   

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Hydrogen-from-waste: Advance material transformation

With its clean combustion property, hydrogen has gained more prominence as the clean fuel of the future, especially as waste oxidisation can release the hydrogen atom within a carbonaceous compound.

Gasification, pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion are the common pathways for hydrogen-from-waste. Materials such as plastic and biomass are rich in hydrogen atoms yet retrieving them is a challenge particularly due to waste’s physical and chemical properties.

Nevertheless, research is showing promising outcomes at lab-scale, increasing the volume of evidence behind these technologies in their pathway to scale-up. The opportunity of hydrogen-from-waste is clear and possibly becoming more attractive once hydrogen-economy infrastructure is established.

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