Yarrabilba is expected to be the first circular economy community in the country.

The Queensland town of Yarrabilba is expected to be the first circular economy community in the country but you wouldn’t guess it from walking down the street.

The real magic happens “under the bonnet” according to a circular economy consultant on the project, Coreo cofounder and chief executive officer Ashleigh Morris.

Although it will look like any other greenfield development, Morris says the conventional linear methods of managing waste, energy and transport have been substituted for creative closed loop systems intended to “design out waste”.

The site, which is under development by Lendlease, is located in the Logan local government area, 40 kilometres south of Brisbane.

Once the 30-year development is finished, it will be home to around 45,000 people and have 17,000 homes. The town also has a 6 Star Green Star Communities rating.

Working out how to squeeze value out of redundant resources 

Morris’ business has worked with the developer on a circular economy masterplan,  which will guide further development. She says the first step is to work out where and how much waste is produced in the town, and then think up creative ways to squeeze value out of these resources.

For example, all waste building materials from constructing homes and non-residential infrastructure will be collected and aggregated at a multiuse precinct.

At the facility, it will be separated into streams and cleaned. This is a key circular economy principle, Morris explains, because “when materials are grouped with other materials of the same type, they have value, and if they aren’t, they do not”.

Instead of a trip to Bunnings, pre-loved bricks and other materials will then be available for purchase by community members. Industry will also have access to these recovered resources.

“Once we have those materials, we will attract in industry as well to create more jobs.”

One outside-the-box idea that’s been floated is feeding organic waste into an anerobic digester to create renewable energy, which will be used to power the operations of a local startup.

This is just the beginning, with traditional linear waste, energy and transport systems all completely re-envisioned. The masterplan includes water recycling, appliance leasing, large scale commercial composting, electric vehicle charging and more.

From Lendlease’s circular economy strategy for Yarrabilba.

Circular economy superstars with clients such as Lendlease, Queensland government, resources companies, universities and the Brisbane Airport

Morris and her cofounder (and sister), Jaine Morris, started the Brisbane-based business earlier this year.

It followed a six-month pilot project to turn a Sunshine Coast street with a bar and shopping precinct into a self-sustaining precinct, including everything from energy to cigarette butts.

Not only did the pilot help businesses reduce their impact and build social capital within the community, but it proved businesses can make money from circular practices. The project was such a success that the participating businesses formed a collective traders association when it was finished.

Lendlease was the first customer but its customer base now includes the Queensland government, resources companies, universities and the Brisbane Airport.

Morris says there’s been overwhelming interest in the company’s services, nearly more than the team of six can handle.

Australia governments are overall very receptive to circular economy programs

Morris said the Yarrabilba project is an example of Australia’s world leading private sector-driven implementation of the circular economy.

She says we’re “miles behind” on legislation but “in terms of industry-led action we are globally at the same stage as everyone else.

“As a country we can be quite proud of that.”

Despite a lack of regulation to incentivise circular initiatives she says she has only come up against one regulatory barrier, and it was related to water ownership and a local government “not ready to do something different”. In most cases there’s “a way around it,” she adds.

But she says governments are overall very receptive to circular economy programs and actually want informed stakeholders to advise them on what needs to be done.

Recycling is a “last resort” option in waste recovery hierarchy

Morris spoke at a conference a few years ago and only the Europeans in the room knew about the circular economy. But now there’s huge momentum building in Australia.

Unfortunately, the circular economy is still a poorly understood concept, with many considering it a substitute term for recycling. In fact, she says recycling is a “last resort” option in waste recovery hierarchy.

Ashleigh Morris, Coreo

“The circular economy is an economic performance-based model that’s systems wide. It’s about the decoupling growth from the consumption of finite resources.”

She also added that sustainability is “a state you’re trying to achieve”.

“Most people get that confused… climate change, waste, they are outcomes and symptoms of a broken model where there’s too much extraction and hazardous materials that are choking up the atmosphere.”

The Coreo founders spoke at a C40 Women4Climate Mentorship Programme session at Lendlease a few weeks ago.