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- 16 May 2018
- 14 May 2018
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Jodie Bricout: One of the highlights of the Powering the Change to a Circular Economy conference was the breakfast session we held in South Australia’s Drill Core Reference Library.
Mining has always been the backbone of Australia’s economy, but what will happen in a circular economy as we get our resources from above ground more than below ground?
We were lucky enough to have some of Australia’s leading researchers that have been working together in the Wealth from Waste research cluster, on what urban mining looks like in Australia and how metals will work in the future.
Melissa Edwards: So, we’re really pleased to be here as part of the Powering the Change conference in Adelaide, and we’re very excited to be sharing the findings from the Wealth from Waste report through the Disruptive Innovation platform. Thank you very much to the Ellen McArthur Foundation.
So, the Wealth from Waste project is a collaboration between Australian universities. The project was funded by CSIRO, and also those universities contributing, to understand the circular economy within the context of Australia, which is quite unique.
What I’ve got here today is some of the leading researchers on the project. We wanted to share some of the key insights of the findings of the report, and draw your attention to being able to access the report online, and contact us for any information.
I’ll start out by handing over to Damien. Damien’s going to give a broad overview of the project and how it fits.
Damien Giurco: Thanks very much Mel, and it’s great to be here. My name is Damien Giurco, from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, and one of the exciting things from this research cluster has been to think through “well, how do we, Australia, find our niche in this circular economy for metals that’s really gathering momentum globally?”
One of the findings of the report was that we have such a rich mining heritage, and even in the undertaking of mining itself, but also the software and surfaces that go along with that. If we can broaden our notion of where resources are to be found, not only below ground, but also above ground, I think there’s enormous opportunity to be attached.
We found that in the report – that looking ahead to the future, there can be hundreds of thousands of jobs that we can find in this space. I think that’s really exciting.
Melissa Edwards: And so I think on that opportunities side, some of the research cluster has really been focusing on that in the context of business and the economy and innovation more generally. I’ll hand over to Sam to highlight a couple of those insights for us.
Samantha Sharpe: My name is Samantha Sharpe, and I’m also from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, and I was leading up the Business Innovation component of the cluster research. Part of the research program was that we spoke to over 250 firms, looking at their innovation practices, and also their levels of engagement and adoption of circular economy practices.
And what we found is there’s a high level of low adoption of many circular economy practices in the business sector in Australia. So there’s a good base to work on.
Where you can see in firms that are really taking up circular economy principles, the innovation processes within their firms are really different to what we typically see in more traditional innovation faculties. They’re much more focused on collaboration, developing networks up and down the supply chain, and that also flowed through in the types of capabilities that the firms needed in their innovation activities, so higher levels of being able to draw knowledge in from their networks, and transmit that knowledge back out.
I think that has some really interesting lessons for the enabling environment for businesses, if we want to look forward and see wider adoption of circular economy principles in businesses, the types of activity government might like to get involved in, like networking activities across supply chains, and also that knowledge diffusion across supply chains to see wider adoption of circular economy practices across businesses.
Melissa Edwards: So the context in Australia is particularly unique, especially from the circular economies of Europe, where I’m sure a lot of people are joining us in watching this video. I think some of this context, Glen you’d like to discuss at the bigger picture scale of metals in particular, being a strong resource base for the Australian economy.
Glen Corder: Yeah, absolutely Mel. Look, I guess what we found that was useful as part of doing this work for the circular economy was the opportunity to go through and collect the data and understand what the metal flows were around the Australian economy.
That’s pretty well defined at the front end of the value chain, through exploration of the mining scene, but when you get further down the value chain, particularly when you get to end of life products, and knowing where they’re going – that data’s not well captured.
So we conducted some fairly rigorous analysis, drawing on data that was available and data from overseas, to get what I think were quite good estimates of the way metal flows around the Australian economy.
One of our early pieces of work was to identify how much unrealised value there was around metals – we estimate that to be around $2billion. We were also trying to identify how the metal flows have changed over time, and if levels of recycling over 10 years had actually decreased, and more of it was going offshore.
And, not only end of life products, but also trying to identify opportunities to extract metals and minerals from mining waste – there are huge values in mining waste. So, from that perspective, we found it incredibly useful, but also integrating that with our other cluster partners and collaborators as well.
Melissa Edwards: So there’s great opportunity at this productive capacity to add value back into the Australian economy, through understanding metal flows at that national level, and figuring ways to bring and maintain that value to the circular economy.
I think there’s other sectors we can focus on also, and that’s one of the key highlights of your research Ruth in particular, understanding the use of and where those stocks are, If you could give us some insights about that research
Ruth Lane: The Monash group looked at where the existing stocks of metals that have already been manufactured, so they’re already in products around the country. We’re focused on high value metals in electronic waste, and bulk metals – steel in buildings in particular.
What we did with this was we mapped the resources, so we can see across the country where the greatest density in steel will be found, what’s the greatest density of mobile phones and tablets and laptops is.
We’ve produced in the report some figures that give an indication of what information you can find now in this atlas of recycled resources.
Melissa Edwards: And so I guess in terms of the buildings and built infrastructure, there was some interesting insights there aside from households and e-waste.
Ruth Lane: One of the biggest challenges with mobilising materials in a circular economy is capturing information at different points that will allow us to use materials differently. The case of steel in Australian buildings is particularly interesting – Australia is a mass exporter of iron ore, and we still import steel, even though we have a local manufacturing industry. We could use steel more efficiently if we produced steel domestically, or if we recycled or reused steel that’s already been in use.
So, the challenge with buildings is they have a long lifespan, potentially 40-60 years, and decisions made at the time of construction that have consequences for what you can do with the resources. Decisions are also made at the time of demolition that can affect what you can do with the materials, and decisions are made by scrap recyclers regarding where they can make the most money – will they make the most money selling scrap domestically or offshore?
The problem is all of those decisions are made independently, and there’s no flow of information between them. So, if it were possible to embed more information in the materials themselves, starting from the structural steel elements in the construction of buildings, if we knew what the standard of steel used and what materials were used, when it comes to demolition, there would be a lot more options about how to demolish it, and how we could use the materials extracted.
Similarly, if we knew more about the standard of recycled metals at the time of building construction, there would be a likelihood of being able to use these materials in new construction.
There’s lots of points in that system where facilitating flow of information about materials over time would facilitate the circularity of the system.
Damien Giurco: That link makes me think that with the new information we’ve been able to offer, and a deep understanding of the actual materials, where they are and where they’re flowing, how do we capture the innovation opportunities? I think that for me, the great part of the cluster is it’s given us an opportunity to connect with this changing global story of the circular economy, even with our other partners at Yale and Swinburne, who weren’t able to join us today.
The CSIRO asked “how do we bring that down under” given our local context, to realise our opportunities at the intersection of the digital and the material. That’s why we proposed in the report, a national framework for the circular economy, to knit together some of the good things in train from industry and government, and to see how we could power the change, in the words of the conference!
Melissa Edwards: So I think a key theme of this conference has really been about collaboration, and the collaboration that is necessary for enabling a circular economy, not just in Australia but globally. We talk about transition and we talk about collaboration, but I think the insights you’ve shared here and the way that the cluster has worked together has really showed collaboration across academia and government policy.
There’s also been a huge interest in industry across this process, which has started with metals and the way in which metals are really important for the Australian economy, but that’s then taken across a whole range of connected industries, and really understanding how the connection happens between primary and secondary industries. I think that’s a way of understanding how the transition happens.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights! We would like to continue this collaborative process, and invite industry partners, especially internationally, to get in touch with the research team and access the report online. Thank you!
Metals pose an interesting challenge to "valuing metals at their highest level."
Join ISF's Prof. Damien Giurco and Dr. Samantha Sharpe, Dr. Melissa Edwards of the UTS Business School, Prof. Glen Corder from the University of Queensland and Dr. Ruth Lane of Monash University to learn about the findings of Wealth from Waste - three years of research into the role of metals and minerals in Australia's circular economy.
Read more about ISF's resource futures research here.