Let’s start simple and imagine a different life for your washing machine. It’s served you for years, and now it’s ready to retire. But it doesn’t get discarded in a landfill. Instead, it’s returned to the place of purchase, so it’s parts can be used again.
This is an example of a circular economy approach. It's a key strategy for Heinz Schandl, who leads our Circular Economy for Missions (CE4M) initiative.
The program aims to support Australia’s transition to a circular economy by developing new products and services for materials which would ordinarily go to waste.
Heinz tells us more.
What is a circular economy?
The concept of a circular economy focuses on the sustainable management of materials within the economy.
It puts the emphasis on designing materials and products with a zero-waste mindset. This means products are designed in such a way that they can be used again, or even multiple times, to maximise their value.
Australia’s circularity rate is around 5 per cent. However, it’s estimated that circular products from waste resources could provide a $210 billion economic boost for Australia through exports to 2050. This provides a significant opportunity.
Why do we need a circular economy?
The world is continuing to industrialise and urbanise. To build infrastructure, power our cities, and cater to our everyday needs, we extract and harvest a myriad of materials. This is in the form of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores, and minerals. As a result, our global material consumption has surged to a staggering 100 billion tonnes annually. This translates to 12.5 tonnes per person, each year! This carries an environmental toll.
To improve this, we need to think outside of the square and change the current linear supply chain. In this case, we need to think circular!
How can we build a circular economy?
My focus is to reach a point where we don’t even think of materials that have been used as waste, but as an asset we can reuse. Most of the materials we extract are consumed once and subsequently discarded – either emitted into the atmosphere, disposed to landfills, or inadvertently leaked into our ecosystems.
Supporting a circular economy will ensure materials can be used again. This will reduce demand on resources and the environment, while providing ongoing economic gains. A benefit of circular economy principles is that they apply to a broad range of sectors, from construction to food.
What are the benefits of a circular economy?
Australia is the world's largest exporter of raw materials, annually shipping out 1.5 billion tonnes. These resources are largely exported. Meanwhile, the bulk of consumer goods are imported.
A circular economy could support many domestic sectors including agriculture, renewable energy, fisheries, forestry, and mining resources. Designing materials, products, and processes with circularity in mind could also provide new opportunities in the rapidly expanding Asian markets. Embracing a circular economy would also help Australia achieve its net-zero pathway, reduce emissions and reduce pollution.
What does a circular economy future look like?
CE4M is part of our portfolio of missions to help address some of Australia’s biggest challenges. It is an enabling program to embed circular economy principles across a range of research areas and sectors, including plastic waste, manufacturing, agriculture and energy.
We are also collaborating with government, industry and communities to provide scientific knowledge to build a more circular system for Australia. This includes developing digital solutions, data science, and advanced materials for new circular economy markets. Furthermore, our research will also inform policy as Australia transitions to building a circular economy and closing the loop on waste.