Dr Usha Iyer-Raniga
Dr Usha Iyer-Raniga is a professor at the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University

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.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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  1. Thank you for this article. I agree. This is about much more than rubbish and definitely demonstrates a symptom of a very sick system. And yes alarm bells are ringing here – and everywhere.
    As you rightly point out, the omission of any engagement with people is the most alarming, but sadly this underpins the business-political paradigm. For decades, and now entrenched, strategic ‘policy’ has been shaped in the commercial interest. Fundamentally the core focus on ‘consuming’ has facilitated and endorsed excesses across the various markets, and consequently the ever-increasing production of waste. This in complete contradiction to the wants and needs of people, very expensive, foolish and contrary to the principles of sustainability. This is why we are facing multiple crises – environment, banking, building, insurance, workplace safety, aged care, etc.
    If we consider the building regime, the current model introduced in the 1990s was based on de-regulation. The cover for the community was to pretend that there were building ‘laws’ and ‘building regulations’, and ‘consumer laws’. However, in actuality there has been virtually no ‘regulation’, no enforcement of the extremely distorted laws, and no penalties for the repeatedly recalcitrant operatives – and there is nil ‘consumer protection’. So today we have a very lawless construction industry. This model was designed to FAIL, and most notably this failure was dependent on locking out the number one stakeholder who provides all the cash – owners. Similarly with Councils, where the CEO and bureaucrats make all the decisions and those councillors elected by the ratepayers are powerless to present the community’s views. No engagement with people or their representatives.
    If we consider the combustible cladding catastrophe, only now slowly being revealed, this dangerous and deadly material has been installed on buildings across Australia for 40 YEARS! Indicative of the wider industry which for decades has been thriving on ‘building’ defective and unsafe buildings – domestic, high-rise and public (schools, hospitals, child care centres, office blocks) – these practices have not only created massive financial loss in the mega billions of dollars for owners and taxpayers, but the rectification industry (without factoring in the dispute industry) has deliberatively boomed on the back of ‘bad building’ and creating massive waste.
    After the remediation works, all the materials must be disposed of – where will the tonnes of old fiery cladding go? And such practices are the antithesis of sustainability. All only possible because the people, the key stakeholders who fund both business and the bureaucrats who are business or directed by same are voiceless, and utterly powerless. Thus, a putative first world country rapidly going backwards.

  2. I think it’s very ironic that the photo of Dr Usha Iyer-Raniga, who is co-leading the UN Sustainable Buildings and Construction Programme, promoting the circular economy, shows off benches made of what looks to be tropical hardwoods (which are extremely popular for this application) resulting from rainforest logging — the single most ecosystem-damaging activity on Earth. More than anything, these materials epitomize the linear economy. One can hope that those benches are instead an example of circularity, perhaps made from salvaged wood, or local hardwoods known for their durability, from second-growth cutting. But I would not be surprised if they are ipê or another popular tropical hardwood, the demand for which is driving first-time logging of primary forests, which the UN has stated precipitates 70% of deforestation. Unfortunately, even for those looking at trying to make construction sustainable, wood materials are all-too-often overlooked. Yet studies have shown that embodied carbon is likely 50% of the carbon footprint of buildings. We must stop overlooking this and actually address it.