Kate Ringvall on the business case for circularity

We live in a world where waste is a product of an economic model gone rogue – where value is lost at every point in supply chains, product development cycles and procurement processes. But what if we could do something different and completely change the way we look at waste? At Waste Expo Australia, Dr. Kate Ringvall (Technical Director of Circular Economy, GHD) will join a panel of experts to discuss the foundations of phasing out waste and pollution, ways to reuse products and materials, and how to protect natural systems in the process.

This unique insight offers a roadmap to a zero-waste future and an opportunity to radically change the way we both value and perceive what has traditionally been called waste.

Ahead of the event taking place in Melbourne at the end of October, Dr. Kate Ringvall comments on some of the key topics set to be discussed.

Can you tell me about your role?
I’m part of a national team of circular economy and sustainability experts leading the charge to transition the way we do things internally as an engineering consultancy and how we help our clients too. Many of our clients are utility owners, governments, and owners of buildings and sites that have an enormous impact on the environment and community around them. We are working to transition the way that we deal with materials so that ‘waste’ is no longer a concept and our infrastructure and built environment projects help to regenerate nature and local communities instead of degenerating them.

Can you topline the business case for circularity?
Circularity is the key to ensuring a business has resilience and longevity by claiming back the lost value in supply chains and value chains, creating new business opportunities through the re-valuing of materials, and extending the life of products through better design and taking into account the end of life of all materials and products.

What is the potential economic benefit for Australia of embracing circular economy practices?
The potential benefits to Australia in transitioning to a circular economy model of growth and resilience are in the hundreds of billions in increased value to our GDP. Recent research is suggesting that the benefit to the Australian economy by 2025 is in the order of $23 billion, and by 2050 is in the vicinity of 200 billion in additional value to our GDP and an additional 17 000 jobs.

How would you advise businesses where to start if they are looking at transforming their businesses from linear to circular? Why do we need to change?
Businesses need to start by understanding the vast quantities of materials that are passing through their supply and value chain ecosystems to be able to understand what are the circular opportunities for new business models that are waiting to be realised. The sheer scale and amount of resources that are being over-consumed at a time when those materials are becoming scarce is a huge risk to business resilience and long-term viability. If a business can guarantee the ongoing supply of the raw material that is required for their business to continue to operate, they can better manage the risks associated with depleting resources and virgin materials, disrupted supply chains, and the growing risks of climate change.

What are some of the quick things that businesses/consumers could do to support the circular economy?
As much as feasible electrify everything, re-design products and services to eliminate waste, and include product stewardship processes such as BAU so that consumers can return materials so that they can be reused, remanufactured, or repurposed. Support customers to understand that less or more circular packaging is good for everyone! Customers need to remember that their power lies in their purchasing choices and that they can choose to purchase less and reuse more and demand better packaging and product stewardship for the products they do consume.

Is there a national circular economy strategy in place? What does that entail?
No not yet but it would be an excellent idea! There are some circular economy principles included in the National Waste Policy and Strategy but nothing specifically to deal with a transition to a circular economy. The NSW and Victorian Governments have recently developed their own policies and they go some way to enacting a transition. I would want to see a Circular Economy Policy that sits in a multi-disciplinary agency or area and separated from the focus just being on waste. Circular Economy as a concept is less about sustainability and far more about a radical transformation of our whole economy, and so it needs to be approached from that perspective.

How do we educate consumers and businesses about the need to change from linear to circular?
Governments and consumer organizations have enormous influence to change the current ‘take-make-waste’ paradigm that is creating enormous losses of value. For such a fundamental change to the way we do everything we need the kind of education programs that tackled some of our biggest social concerns to motivate people to do things differently and see the benefits for themselves.

Are there any circular projects that you have been particularly impressed with?
In GHD there are so many amazing projects being undertaken every day and the ones that have really sparked my interest and we have been the myriad water reuse projects that are also processing organics to create energy and fertiliser! I’m also amazed at the advances in the built environment sector to create buildings as material banks so that those materials can be traced for the life of the project and then reused elsewhere at the end of the useful life of that building. What we’re working on right now though has been really exciting – helping our clients to understand the circular opportunities to the myriad materials that flow through their business ecosystems.

What are some of the essential differences between ‘sustainability’ and ‘circular economy’?
I like to frame Sustainability as giving us the principles for what and why we need to do things differently and the Circular Economy gives us the frameworks and processes for how we actually do things differently.

What lessons can Australia learn from other countries – who are some of the leaders in this space? Can you provide an example? And what conditions were present to encourage such leadership?
The European Union has been leading the way in transitioning to a circular economy model of growth for the last decade, and among the Union, The Netherlands has been at the forefront of this. The Netherlands has chosen to prioritize efforts to transition to a circular economy through supporting research and development in new ways of re-processing and re-developing materials, developing legislation and regulatory frameworks that support circularity, and encouraging grass-roots action to transition. Professor Jacqueline Cramer, a Dutch circular economy expert suggests that ‘network governance’ where groups are supported to collaborate and work together is the way a transition is occurring in her country.

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