Circularity clarity: Why we need imperfect solutions at scale

28 Jun 2023

A perfect circle is the ideal. But the transition to a circular economy must start now – and that means more people working together to deliver imperfect solutions at scale.

It’s a radical idea: a not-quite-perfect solution to the piles of wasted materials that we are creating in every corner of the globe.

Circularity demands a radical rethink of every part of our economy. Just this month Australia’s environment ministers acknowledged the challenge of transitioning our economy away from “take, make, waste” and promised to introduce new packaging regulations after voluntary measures have failed to stem the tide of single-use plastics.

Let this be a signal to Australia’s built environment sector. Our industry uses almost half of the materials extracted globally. We can continue to, if you’ll excuse the pun, go round and round in circles. Or we can take action.

This month, we unveiled an action plan for a circular economy in South Australia’s building sector. Launched at Green Building Day with the help of Deputy Premier Susan Close, the action plan is the first step towards a ‘circular economy nucleus’ in South Australia.

Why did we choose South Australia? We know that the first step to scale is to find best practice and shout it from the rooftops. South Australia began thinking about circularity before it was a concept (the state’s first container deposit scheme was launched in 1977, decades before the rest of the country caught up).

There are many great things about this circular economy action plan, and a big shout out to dsquared for the rigorous technical research which means the plan can be easily adapted to other states and territories. Genuine circularity is local, but by sharing the ‘green shoots’ in South Australia, we hope other states can start to plant their own circular economy seeds.

At the same time, we are almost ready to release our Green Star Fitouts scoping paper for consultation. With a commitment to 100% circularity, the rating tool will represent a seismic shift in thinking. As Huia Adkins, GHD’s Technical Director for Circular Economy, noted recently at Green Building Day, our current approach to fitouts is akin to throwing out every stick of furniture each time we move house. Sending that furniture to charities is not sustainable – in any sense of the word – and the new rating tool proposes to reward project teams for the things they don’t do, as well as those they do.

There are many different definitions of the circular economy (which is why it can sometimes seem so nebulous). According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles: the elimination of waste and pollution, the circulation of products and materials at their highest value and the regeneration nature. All three are driven by design – in fact 80% of a product's environmental impact is made during design. That key word, design, tells us where the built environment’s circular thinking starts.

The World Green Building Council, in its newly-released Circular Built Environment Playbook, estimates that the circular economy could yield up to US$4.5 trillion in benefits between now and 2030.

Signs of global systemic change are in the air. The United Nations Environmental Programme has secured in principle agreement from 130 countries for a treaty that will address the 400 million tonnes of plastic pollution created globally each year. The European Union has passed “right to repair” regulation which puts paid to the idea of ‘planned obsolescence’.

But creating a circular economy is a colossal task. Australia alone accumulates 76 million tonnes of waste a year.

The Circularity Gap report tells us that just 7.2% of our materials, globally, are cycled back into the economy. We can’t wait for the perfect projects. We must embrace the imperfect action now as we start to move towards scale.

Big problems require leaders willing to step up to the plate to solve them. This month we also announced our 2023 Green Star Champions. Many of these people are reluctant to step into the spotlight because their best work happens quietly off stage. So rather than single out one person, I encourage you to check out our list and send your colleagues a note of congratulations. No one in our sector is in it for the awards, but our Green Star Champions do deserve our applause.

As we cheer on our current Green Star champions we also say a very sad farewell to a green building legend Tom Roper, who passed away last week. Tom was President of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council from 2009 to 2015, following a long career in politics. He used his political influence and deep insight into public policy to advocate for green buildings at a pivotal time, and led the development of reports that we continue to quote to this day. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, but Tom stood taller than most.