The way the world does business is changing. We can no longer expect to take resources, turn them into stuff and discard it all as waste. Moving to a new kind of ‘circular’ economy presents great challenges, but amazing opportunities and rewards.
So who is working on this in New Zealand and how can you make the most of it?
Andy Kenworthy reports.
The Circular Economy Accelerator (CEA) launched in New Zealand late last year is a project of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN). Its aim is to hasten our transition to a new kind of economy.
It will be one where the life cycles of materials is maximised and their usage optimised. At the end of life all materials will be reutilised. The intention is to eliminate waste and regenerate our environment.
The model distinguishes between ‘technical’ and ‘biological’ cycles.
Biological cycles include foods and things like cotton or wood. These should be designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems, such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy.
Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through reuse, repair and remanufacture. Importantly, this leaves recycling as a last resort, and almost completely eliminates landfill.
This makes it important that biological materials and technical materials are designed so that they can be easily separated.
The emergence of the idea into commercial thinking can be traced back to the 1970s, but it has been refined over time. It gained further momentum in 2002 with the publication of many of these ideas in Cradle to Cradle, by German chemist Michael Braungart and US architect William McDonough.
Today there are circular economy advocates all over the world, working to promote these ideas and put them into practise. They are influencing product design, distribution, even the future of entire cities.
In New Zealand, part of the work of the CEA is exploring the circular economy opportunities for Auckland, supported by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), Fuji Xerox NZ, 3R Group and Inzide Commercial.
James Griffin leads the CEA. “The circular economy has the potential to create the most significant shift in the way we work since the Industrial Revolution,” he says. “It will generate some of the leading ideas of our time. If more New Zealand business, large and small, can get ahead on this, we could become a global centre of excellence, with huge benefits for all involved.”
A circular economy award was added to the NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards for the first time in 2017. It gained more entrants than any other category in the 15 years the awards have been running.
The winner was Wishbone Design Studio. The Wellington-based company has created a multi-functional balance bike for children. The Recycled Edition is the world’s first bicycle made from 100-percent recycled material. Its frame is made from resin sourced from recycled residential carpet. The bike introduces very young children to a lifetime of cycling. It reduces landfill, minimises raw materials and avoids the consumption of fossil fuels in manufacture.
It’s a three-in-one product, which transforms from three to two wheels. It grows with the child, thanks to a patented seat-and-frame adjusting system. And every component is available for purchase, so it can be easily repaired.
Another entrant was Ethique from Christchurch. The company produces solid beauty bars. They are a compostable, plastic-free alternative for personal health care. The ingredients are sustainable and biodegradable. The packaging is uncoated, recycled, compostable cardboard boxes.
Meanwhile highly commended was EcoStock Supplies, which takes more than ten large truckloads a day of pre-consumer food waste into its centre at Wiri in Manuakau. It then turns this into high-grade food products for animal feed.
Fuji Xerox New Zealand and 3R Group are founding partners of the CEA, along with Auckland Council.
Fuji Xerox products are specifically designed for recovery, reuse and, ultimately, to be recycled at end of life. The company undertakes to recover all Fuji Xerox-branded end-of-life equipment and toner cartridges from customers. Reusable equipment is given a second life as reconditioned ‘eco machines’ and as quality spare parts. At end-of-life all equipment collected from customers is recycled, achieving a recycling rate of more than 99.5 percent.
The Hastings-based 3R Group helps clients take responsibility for their products at the end of their life. It also helps them to responsibly dispose of unwanted products and packaging. The company has been instrumental in developing product stewardship schemes for the paint, textiles, agriculture and automotive sectors.
And Auckland Council is using circular economy thinking across the organisation, particularly to reduce carbon emissions and drive waste minimisation.
Circular economy thinking is carving out a niche in an ever-growing global market for these kinds of solutions. A 2013 UN report put the environmental cost of our current mode of business at US$4.7 trillion a year. As every business person knows, cost cutting is big business. A 2015 study by McKinsey&Company for the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UK-based global advocate for the circular economy, estimated that this will represent a US$1 trillion global economic opportunity by 2025.
James Griffin says: “We urgently need to shift to a circular economy. It is one of few options we have for sustaining technological and societal advancement into the future. We are in the era of global resource constraint. We are seeing regulatory responses that make waste disposal increasingly expensive. And we are seeing the continued rise of consumers favouring companies with genuine solutions to these challenges.
“All this will inevitably increase the value and benefits of this approach over time. Eventually something like the circular economy will not just be a way of operating, it will be the only way of operating successfully.”
To find out more, go to circulareconomy.org.nz