If emissions reduction is the world’s only focus and the linear economy continues, sustainability falls behind. The circular economy solution is as exciting as it is challenging.
The economic model that has existed since the industrial revolution is at the end of its life, according to Lisa McLean, CEO of Circular Australia.
In its place and already well into its early development phase is a new model that asks engineers to find solutions to fascinating new challenges. The goal is to design processes that ensure every product and resource, at the end of its life, is as valuable and useful as the day it was produced.
“The economic framework that governments are turning to, a circular economy, is the only economic framework we have to grow jobs and industries in a resource- and carbon-constrained future,” McLean told create.
“We’ve got to understand this context before we can talk about solutions. We have to recognise that the way we’re designing things is not to last. We’re using components and resources in an unsustainable way.”
Designing out waste means more than recycling, she said. To keep materials in the economy for as long as possible, those materials should remain at their highest value. They should be upcycled rather than downcycled.
It requires the decoupling of economic growth from the consumption of finite resources.
Circular processes as well as products
Water is one such finite resource. Along these lines, Sydney Water is currently looking at new opportunities to innovate, including technology from the Netherlands that recycles water in the home.
“We’ve never had the ability to recycle shower and washing machine water at scale,” McLean said. “For example, we’ve always relied on using buckets to collect water for the garden. We haven’t had any technology that could actually help us recycle like that in the home.
“We’re seeing energy companies supplying solar panels for households because they know that’s going to cut energy demand, meaning generation infrastructure can become smaller.”
The most complex challenge, though, is in the design of the items we use everyday – clothing, technology, vehicles.
“How can the materials, componentry and resources that go into these things be easily repairable and last for as long as possible?” McLean said. “In Europe, we’re starting to see legislation that means anything that is made has to last for five to ten years.
“Then, when products are unable to be repaired, how can they be broken down at the end of their life, ensuring their componentry has real value?”
It’s an engineering challenge that requires a solution as soon as possible.
Circular thinking is for everybody
The $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund is very much linked to the concept of a circular economy, McLean said. Onshore jobs and capability, and national security, are about reusing our own resources rather than sending them offshore.
Everybody has a role to play in such complex reform. From government to the private sector to the individual, a great deal of change will be required at once.
The single common ingredient in the recipe for circular success is engineering.
“More than half the materials currently going to landfill here are our biggest economic opportunity for recycling – organics, masonry and plastics,” McLean explained.
“Today there is more gold and silver in a tonne of iPhones than a tonne of ore from a gold or silver mine, and we have more things on the planet — more objects and products — than we do natural capital. We can’t continue to use resources like this, especially with 90 per cent redundancy in the things we already make.”
Lisa McLean is just one of many experts who’ll be in attendance at Climate Smart Engineering 2023.