The Victorian government’s circular economy discussion paper rings alarm bells that a major opportunity to redesign our economy will be missed.
Firstly, by narrowly defining circular economies as just a waste disposal issue, and secondly, by overlooking a key factor in implementing any reform – the engagement of people.
It’s about more than just waste
Victoria’s major recycling crisis is one symptom of how unsustainable our linear waste economy is. So, to release a circular economy plan that focuses almost solely on that issue shows a complete misunderstanding of what circular economies can do beyond sustainable recycling.
It’s not just about recycling. It’s also about value-adding, upcycling, new industries and economic opportunities, increased wellbeing and social connections.
Bringing people together is what makes circular economies happen
Circular economies are about people coming together at the sweet spot — the coffee cup recycler who makes napkins, the university who gives unwanted computers to schools in developing countries, the cafe that uses vegetables the major supermarkets don’t want because they’re oddly shaped, and using more sustainable materials such as recycled cotton and polyester, wood fibres and natural rubber in the fashion industry.
Circl in Amsterdam is already using circular economy practises in its restaurants, such as using seasonal products, rain water collection on site, and on site photovoltaic panels.
Next, the management wanted to further reduce the energy use in the restaurants by 10 per cent each year. This led to practices such as low wattage lighting, using stairs instead of lifts, energy efficient kitchen practices and waste reduction measures. The staff in the restaurant are also devising ways of preserving food without fridges and freezers.
To find these sweet spots, where everyone wins at no cost to the system, entrepreneurs and industry need to be brought together: collaborative spaces, roundtables, living labs and online virtual innovation hubs.
This is what the experience in the EU shows us. For example, the QO Hotel in Amsterdam is designed not just to be a hotel but also offer a sustainable lifestyle destination with much of its food coming from its roof garden.
De Ceuvel is a commercial site in Amsterdam that has been transformed from a polluted shipyard into a sustainable residential area built largely out of recycled materials, such as old houseboats bought for 1 Euro. It produces its own energy using a smart grid and recycles its wastewater.
Closer to home, the KTPH (Khoo Tech Puat Hospital) in Singapore uses minimum air conditioning, it grows herbs and some vegetables on site, and even uses fish for food from its own fish pond.
These are mainly managed by volunteers.
These examples demonstrate what governments must do to support circular economies, yet any provision or discussion of this in the Victorian government’s plan is completely absent.
Engage the youth
It’s not just about engaging industry and entrepreneurs, but also the young (who have the greatest appetite and motivation for change — it’s their future). Recognising this, the UN has just released SDG emojis and cartoon characters to engage children on these issues.
What does our government plan to do to engage young people, or any people, on these transformative behavioural change programs? Again, totally silent. Evidence shows reform and behaviour change simply do not happen without engagement.
A major opportunity. Will it be missed?
The government should be applauded for releasing its circular economy discussion paper (albeit nearly a decade behind progress on this issue in the EU), and committing to implement a plan from that (to be released late this year), with $37 million over three years.
But there are glaring omissions that threaten to undermine the whole process, lock-in short term thinking, and define circular economies as a failed experiment for years to come.
Dr Usha Iyer-Raniga is a professor at the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University. She is also the co-lead of the United Nations One Planet Network’s Sustainable Buildings and Construction Programme, (10YFP) on Sustainable Consumption and Production aligned with SDG12.
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