Sarah Thomson is passionate about the circular economy and has pushed it hard. “Some of my colleagues think I am obsessed with it, but it’s my passion,” said Thomson.
The General Manager of Strategy, Governance and Finance at Goulburn Valley Water spoke at the VicWater 2022 Annual Conference about the potential role of water corporations in the circular economy and why she is so passionate about it.
“It’s the power of a brilliant idea. The work that we have done in our region is showing that water corporations have the potential to play a pivotal role in transitioning to a circular economy. It’s an incredible opportunity. We could provide water, wastewater and resource recovery services,” said Thomson.
Thomson is a former Deloitte accountant who found herself wanting to achieve something else in her life. She was looking for a greater purpose. Within a short period, she moved from her Melbourne office to Kakadu in the Northern Territory to work for the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. From there, Thomson visited a friend in West Timor, Indonesia and was inspired to start working with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) such as WaterAid, Burnet Institute and World Vision.
“While I was in these countries, I saw how water and sanitation underpin the very basics of society,” Thomson said. “Strategies and policies that encouraged the development of clean water and good sanitation infrastructure have seen those countries develop faster. We can look at countries such as South Korea, Singapore and India.”
Thomson pointed out that water corporations across Australia have a role in encouraging the creation of circular economies. They have the potential to lead as a trusted broker between industry, community and government. They can propel the transition to a circular economy.
“Every organisation I have spoken to aspires to do things in ‘cleaner and greener’ ways. This transition is a complicated beast,” she said. “It can’t be done operating in silos. It requires leadership and coordination. I think that water corporations are well placed to provide this.
“Imagine if we could play a pivotal role in our community’s shift to a circular economy by producing renewable products such as biomethane, biochar and hydrogen. We could also recover valuable phosphorous from the organic waste we receive into our wastewater treatment facilities.”
Opportunities for the circular economy
She said she could see a significant opportunity for water corporations and local councils to work together to aggregate organic waste to create economies of scale.
Water corporations also have opportunities to make products like urea because urea can be produced from hydrogen. Urea is a key ingredient in fertiliser. This could help Australia shore up its sovereign supply chains in food which has been vulnerable due to COVID and the recent war in Ukraine. The shortage of urea in Australia has been part of the big increases in food costs.
Thomson also spoke about the importance of engaging the community by discussing the circular economy at a regional level. Given the importance of manufacturing, agriculture and transport to the local economy, it was vital for Goulburn Valley Water to take a whole-of-community approach to explain what it wanted to achieve.
One thing that Thomson could lean on was her knowledge of strong community leadership in challenging times. She gave an example of when Shepparton – in the Goulburn Valley service area – had a COVID outbreak. During that time, half of the population was locked down. Normally, such a situation would be a nightmare for a small regional area. However, local community leaders came together and mobilised the population. Everyone in lockdown could still get fresh food, meals and whatever else they needed. Such community-oriented action reflects a willingness to work together and the aspiration to improve Shepparton.
“I think we can use the same community-led approach to transition to a circular economy. We’ve got significant emissions with some big industries here. We want to reduce those emissions and start seeing waste, such as wastewater and organics, as a resource, creating jobs and building resilience,” she said.
In 2020, Regional Development Victoria and the Goulburn Regional Partnership supported the creation and development of the community-led Goulburn-Murray Resilience Strategy. This resulted in collaboration with Ross Garnaut and John Hewson through Goulburn Valley Water and the Committee for Greater Shepparton, a business advocacy committee. The collaboration saw a community thought leadership workshop. Former Liberal leader Hewson, and Australian economist Garnaut, played roles in supporting the development workshop.
From these workshops came the establishment of a circular economy working group in January 2021. In April, they were joined by engineering firm Aurecon, which introduced a multi-disciplinary team to the Goulburn Valley business community.
Together, they worked to understand the opportunities available within the circular economy. The end of 2021 saw the creation of the Embedding Regional Resilience Through the Circular Economy white paper.
“The white paper was a bit of a thought piece. It was to get people to understand what the opportunity could look like and to create a vision for the region. It’s not set in stone; it’s just a starting point,” said Thomson.
The paper showed what could be done in the region, not what must be done. This document gained support from manufacturers, energy companies, universities and government entities. Sarah said that companies realised that they had to work with others to achieve their goals instead of operating in silos.
The multi-loop circular economy
Thomson spoke about the importance of the multi-loop circular economy. It focused on building a strong and sensible plan for transitioning to renewable energy and securing the future for the region.
The model comprises three loops that build on top of each other to maximise the use of resources and minimise what is not used.
“The big aspiration is to move our farms, utilities and factories from the old fossil fuel world into the new green energy world through innovation and technology.”
The first loop focused on waste-to-energy. It was an opportunity for farms, utilities, councils and factories to make the most of local biomass to reduce waste and create alternative energy sources. The current wastewater treatment facility in Shepparton was scaled to a population of one million to manage the large quantities of industrial waste. This is large for a regional area populated by around 50,000 people.
“The progression to making green biomethane, hydrogen, biochar and other green products are potentially the most exciting for many regional businesses,” Thomson said. “The opportunity for farms, utilities and factories to create green hydrogen, renewable energy, green fertilisers, and biogas is enormous. It also provides new industries for Australia, such as creating hydrogen fuel cells or hydrogen fuel cell-compatible vehicles suited to Australian conditions. That could provide numerous jobs.”
According to Thomson, there are also new industries that have not been thought about yet. For example, Australia will need to measure carbon transparently, which requires blockchain use. The country must track how things are produced and transported and all the interlocking components. She thinks a place like Shepparton could set up this industry and employ locals.
“The second loop is really important,” she said. “One in four heavy vehicles in Victoria is registered in Shepparton. Reducing or eliminating the emissions from this sector would make a real difference. We have been speaking with Hyzon, the hydrogen heavy vehicle company working with Twiggy Forrest, about the opportunities to transition our region’s trucks to renewable hydrogen.”
Engagement and communication around the circular economy
One of the biggest things Thomson pointed out was the importance of communication. Having stakeholders from across the region at all levels involved in the conversation was key to developing a solid understanding of the goals.
Socialising and engaging with the community have been key to discovering that people across the region know about the circular economy and its importance.
“I was talking to the CEO of SPC Ardmona last week. He has a good understanding of the many opportunities that the circular economy presents,” she said. “There is a circular economy workshop planned shortly focusing on materials, and SPC Ardmona will send staff to that workshop. It is clear that they are seeing the challenge and want to be involved in the solution.”
Thomson acknowledged that governance is one of the biggest challenges of such a creation. This is particularly when working across the various boundaries of community, business and government.
Thomson believes strong governance requires bringing together a broad range of multi-disciplinary experience. Working in areas such as public-private partnerships, probity, commercial and financing, as well as a strong understanding of the region’s communities, industries and governments will be vital. This kind of governance will be very important for the ultimate success of a circular economy.
In expressing her love for Shepparton, Thomson stresses numerous opportunities for the projects to grow the Goulburn Valley region. The opportunities in the energy space could support many businesses and build the region’s ‘clean and green’ credentials.
“We found that everyone has been thinking about the circular economy. They all really want to shift our economy, but everyone was thinking about it separately,” she said. “What became clear was that there was a fair bit of benefit in teaming up and working together for the region. The key is thinking of this circular economy as a whole rather than individual components.
“An executive from one of our major industrial businesses said to me the other day that he would like the Goulburn Valley to be a world leader in the circular economy. I would love to be part of driving and realising this aspiration. I can’t think of a better way to use my time on this planet.”