What is the circular economy, and how do we make it a reality for New Zealand?

By Fiona Stephenson

As an SBN member you can be part of the biggest business transformation since the Industrial Revolution – the circular economy. So what’s the plan, and what might life be like if we succeed?

Waking up to a circular economy

You wake up in the city and reach for your phone. It reminds you it’s due an upgrade. You slot in a new processor module from the post pack. You switch the case for one you 3D printed yourself the night before. You pop the old processor back in the company’s special post pack. You chuck the old case by the printer to be reborn. 

The washing was done as programmed at the weekend and is now dry outside under the eaves. You select a favourite suit. You realise you have had this one for a few years now. Maybe it’s time to switch it with the leasing company or get it restyled. You don’t feel quite ready to get one of the home tailoring machines. 

You shower, musing on how the same water will soon be flushing your loo. You enjoy the smell of the all natural shampoo as you work the block into your hair. You can just make out the swish of the electric rubbish truck as it starts its run of your area. You look out the window, past the building’s small vegetable patch, the compost bins and the fruit trees. There’s not much to dispose of, so you consider skipping it this time. Instead you make it to the curb just in time for its return run. The sections of your monthly wheelie bin are separated and dumped into pre-processing pods on the truck. The truck deposits some compost into the building’s garden bins before it heads away. The smell reminds you of your long weekends in the woods.

Breakfast comes from the bulk containers on the kitchen counter. Local muesli and fruit grown outside. The containers have triggered a delivery. Fresh goods from the organic farm you support are waiting to be offloaded from their paper bags…

A vision for a better world 

So what if we shifted our whole economy from its current state to a circular economy? Waste and pollution would be minimal or completely eliminated. Factories and workplaces would be much more closely linked, with one process working seamlessly with others. Materials for products would flow safely in and out of production processes. There would be little or no stray materials polluting the countryside, seas or atmosphere. A lot of current products would become services. You might not own a car, power tools, even your clothes. You might just pay for a service that provides them when you need them. 

Huge efficiency savings would combine with a much cleaner environment. This would create healthier, happier and more equitable lifestyles all over the world. Greenhouse gas emissions would be radically reduced. 

The circular economy won’t solve all of humanity’s challenges. But it is one of the most comprehensive design systems available for tackling them within the constraints of our technology, our cultures and human behaviour. 

So what part is SBN playing in this? 

Business innovation and collaboration will be central to the shift to a circular economy. The Sustainable Business Network has more than 15 years of experience and more than 550 members. This means we are uniquely placed to make this happen. 

SBN has recognised the opportunity of the circular economy for several years. 

We have now established the Circular Economy Accelerator with the support of our Foundation Partners, Auckland Council, 3R Group, Fuji Xerox and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, to help businesses to drive this necessary transition.

Here’s what the Accelerator has done so far.

The Circular Economy Model Office was our first pilot project in this area. This includes a circular economy guide for your next office move or refurbishment. 

Our circular economy year kicked off with February’s visit by Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In May we launched the report on the economic value of the circular economy for Auckland, with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED). This helped spark a wave of activity in business and government up and down the country. 

In August ten leading businesses backed our diagnostic study on New Zealand’s plastic packaging system. Already we have shared some interim results with them. The report, complete with input, is set to be published later this month. We are now developing a programme to deliver on the recommendations contained in the study. This will play a key role in facilitating a circular economy for plastics that works in New Zealand.

CEA also co-organised the country’s first Circular Economy Summit with WasteMINZ. This featured a challenging and inspiring keynote speech from Professor Dr Michael Braungart. He is renowned as one of the leading lights in the Cradle-to-Cradle movement of the 1990s. Videos of all the sessions can be viewed here.

We have also established the Going Circular category, sponsored by Foundation Partner Auckland Council, in the NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards. This is aimed at helping to inspire more developments in the circular economy. Finalists for the have been announced and case studies are available to view here. 

How you can get involved

We will be continuing to nurture circular economy across the country. This includes a series of events in the Bay of Plenty with our newest Foundation Partner, the Regional Bay of Plenty Council. We are also holding a pilot Circular Economy Series event in Wellington on Tuesday November 27. The Series will offer in-depth explorations of how businesses can use technology to unlock circular economy opportunities. It will complement our other circular economy events up and down the country.  

We are currently developing the Institute for Innovation in Remanufacture & Reuse. This will bring businesses and academics together to work on capturing the value of used products and materials and keeping them in circulation. 

We have our own circular economy website (circulareconomy.org.nz). We post on SBN’s Facebook feed, on Twitter and on LinkedIn. And we have created The Circular. This is a dedicated newsletter for business people interested in knowing more about the circular economy and our work. 

All of this is open for you and your business to participate in. Just get in touch. You can talk to the Circular Economy Accelerator team by contacting james@sustainable.org.nz (021 686 155).

James Griffin leads the CEA. He says: “Creating a circular economy in New Zealand will involve multiple key people and organisations. We are in a unique position to help lead this transformation. It will be vitally important for tackling some of New Zealand’s key economic and environmental challenges. It will set a course for an abundant, healthy future. We need to act now.