In a conversation with The Fifth Estate before Building Circularity, chief executive and co-founder of Coreo, Ashleigh Morris, delved into her passion for accelerating the transition to a circular economy, how she elevated a busy street out of its waste woes, and why food scraps should be the new way of creating energy.

Starting out at the hyperlocal level, on a grungy coastal Queensland street, businesswoman and conservationist Ashleigh Morris has built a growing circular economy consultancy that’s now collaborating with Lendlease, Mirvac, Rio Tinto, universities and the Brisbane and Sydney councils.

It all started in 2017 following eye-opening trips around the globe, but mostly to Indonesia, where Morris saw the challenges of Australia’s linear economy playing out and wreaking havoc on neighbouring countries left to deal with our waste.

A thesis on electronic waste cemented her enthusiasm in the circular economy, she said, “it really sparked an interest for me in regards to it being a new economic model that was not as wasteful as the one we have today, which would actually enable us to have a prosperous and healthy functioning economy as well as society”.

In 2017, there wasn’t any “tangible demonstration” of a circular economy, Morris said. But in six months an ambitious experiment provided exactly that.

Morris and her sister Jaine Morris worked for free for six months to test the merit of a circular economy by putting it into practice on one city street.

Titled The Circular Experiment, the pair overhauled an eclectic collection of 45 businesses on Ocean Street in Maroochydore, Queensland, shifting old practices and designing out waste and pollution.

Looking at resource efficiency, reverse logistics and asset sharing, the women implemented regenerative principles, infrastructure and green space.

Big, provocative street stickers warned off littering. Coffee grounds – one of the heaviest materials entering waste streams, increasing costs for businesses – from nine cafes were collected by a local farmer for its rich nitrogen benefits to composting. The local farmer then sold pesticide-free micro herbs back to the cafes.

And a brightly coloured ballot bin for cigarette butts, which were a problem on the street dotted with late-night bars, gamified “doing the right” thing by getting smokers to vote with their butt on whether Donald Trump’s hair is real or fake.

“It changed the identity of a grungy street to somewhere people wanted to be,” Morris said, pinning the experiment’s success to boots-on- the-ground effort, and perseverance.

“We found it is always best to connect face-to-face and most importantly not project what we want to do but understand what mattered to those businesses…that was a pivotal turning point for us in successfully engaging all those businesses.

“That really catalysed our work thereafter.”

Morris said a “disastrous” composting project with the 19 hospitality businesses on Ocean Street led her to a food-waste solution she said should “absolutely be implemented in our country”.

“Maceration, I absolutely love this,” she said, highlighting the benefits of infrastructure already in existence, and the high-value outputs.

Water utility plants could become the centre of energy production, Morris explains. In-sink macerators can grind food waste into a “slurry” and send it down into the sewer network to the waste water treatment utility.

“If you add food waste to a water treatment utility it can increase their biogas generation by up to 70 per cent, the capture of that gas can then be used to generate energy to displace the purchase of energy from the grid… this has a huge emissions reduction aspect to it,” she said.

Morris pointed to technology pioneered in Queensland by Urban Utilities that uses biosolids to create calorific briquettes, which she claims could replace the use of coal “because they have a calorific value, so they burn really well.

“We’re seeing a number of really high value nutrients and products being created out of what we would class as a waste,” explaining that in a circular economy, anything that is biological should be returned to regenerate the natural system.

In doing that, we then have renewable resources for the economy.”

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