What is a circular economy and what new opportunities does it create?
Following on from Southern Cross University’s Impact Forum: Circular Economy, SCU Buzz host River sat down with Principal Scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Professor Linda Godfrey, and Southern Cross academic within the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Professor Dirk Erler, to discuss how a circular economy differs from waste management, the new business models it can create and how individuals can make a difference.
Welcome to the podcast, Linda and Dirk! To start off with, can you explain what a circular economy is and why it is more than waste management?
Linda: It's really about sustainable resource management. What the circular economy does is it really tracks the movement of resources through an economy, which for now, has been very linear. So, we extract resources, we make things, we consume things, and at end of life we throw them away. And the problem with that is when you live on a planet of finite resources, at some point in time you're going to run out. And so, the question is, how do we change that paradigm? How do we rethink resources? The circular economy is absolutely more than waste management because by the time you get to the point of waste and pollution, it's too late. It's an end of pipe solution. We've got to move the entire discussion upstream in terms of our consumption behaviour. We need to use less, we need to use longer and we need to reuse.
Dirk: We are dealing with a global transition to a whole different economy. This is an enormous undertaking. It's not just about recycling and changing waste. It's about how the country uses resources, how we value resources. It's fundamental change to society.
What type of business opportunities does a circular economy create?
Linda: The fact that our entire global economic model is based on manufacturing and selling more stuff, and us as consumers buying more stuff, is a fundamental problem because you can't continue along that trajectory. The question then becomes how do we change that business model? How do we shift from product to service? Why do I need to own everything? I was chatting to someone just yesterday around a business model that I've seen in the US where it essentially asked the question, why do we travel with luggage? Let's say you're going from Brisbane to Sydney for two days and you need two suits and two shirts and a pair of shoes. The business ensures that it's hanging in the cupboard of the hotel when you arrive. Those clothes will now be designed to last much longer because the owner of those clothes will ensure that they can get maximum use out of it. But also think about the positive impact on the airline industry. Think about the weight of everyone's luggage in an airplane and what the impact on fuel consumption is.
Dirk: Longevity in products has been lost. We buy things and we will want something new. And every time something new comes out, we need that thing. An example a friend told me about the other day is Alvey Reels, a famous Australian fishing reel, has gone out of business because they're too good. They last forever. And we need to reward that rather than have those sorts of products go out of business. So, it has to be economically viable for companies. They're obviously going to have to charge more for something that lasts longer. We have to get used to having less things, but the things we do have cost a bit more and they're going to last much longer. And perhaps we need to then share more of those things. The sharing economy has to be the way that we transition to circular as well.
How can individuals make a difference in transitioning to circular economy?
Linda: We live in a world now of convenience. We live in a world of easy access to goods and to services, and so sometimes I think we forget the impact that we actually have. I think we are too far removed as individuals from the environment, and so I think it's probably just an awareness of the weight of your footprints on the planet, to think about what you consume, to be a responsible consumer. To think twice in terms of do I need it? Do I want it? Is this a sustainable product that I'm buying?
Dirk: Your circle of influence is important and I think that's how as individuals we can address that. So, in your everyday life you try and live that philosophy of circular economy.