The future is here: Australia’s transition to the circular economy

Ahead of the 2nd Australian Circular Economy Forum, we sit down with CEO of Circular Australia, Lisa McLean, to understand more about the opportunities for a circular economy in Australia, and the important role retailers play in this transition.


Q. What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is an economic framework helping governments and businesses to reduce carbon, waste and regenerate natural systems.

It is a systems transition based on decoupling economic growth from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system.

The circular economy is based on three principles:

  1. Design out waste and pollution at every stage of production, use and end-of-life.
  2. Keep products and materials in use at their highest possible value.
  3. Regenerate natural systems for example through water, food, organics recycling, the removal of toxic waste, tree planting.

Circular Australia supports a safe and equitable Australian circular economy that matches environmental goals with social ambitions.


Q. We know that recycling and waste capacity is a big problem in Australia; how could the circular economy mitigate this issue?

A Circular Economy is really the only viable economic framework available to help us grow jobs and industries in a resource and carbon constrained future. It creates new opportunities for businesses to extract value from materials, tackling the unsustainable, linear, ‘take, make, waste’ approach that is burning through our natural resources and natural capital without replenishing it.

Taking a circular approach means that waste and pollutants can be designed out of products from the beginning, products and components are made of safe materials, designed to last, can be broken down at end of life and go back into the system at their highest value, over and over again. It means new sharing and reuse business models can thrive such as ‘fashion as a service’, ‘mobility as a service’, ‘cleaning products as a service’ and so on. This ensures people get what they need without using things once and throwing them away. New products can be traded and used that deliver less carbon, pollution, and waste.

In a circular economy recycling and recovery (waste to energy) are at the bottom of the hierarchy. The CE Hierarchy starts with Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose – then Recycling and Recover.


Q. What is the role of the retailer in this transition to a circular future?

Retailers have a critical role to play in leading and participating in the circular economy. In Australia, the CE economic opportunity is around $2 trillion dollars. If we look at the CE hierarchy of ‘Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycling and Recover’ there are many opportunities – especially for retailers – to extract value in the new zero carbon zero waste circular economy.

This includes making circular products and services accessible to the public. For example, we have seen an increase in retailers stocking re-usable and re-fillable products in their points of sale, and this is encouraging, as well as appreciated by the customer.

The opportunities are many, and we invite ARA members to join us at the Australian Circular Economy Forum on June 26 (link to Humanitix) to bring their voice and expertise into the room, to help us design and fast-track a circular future for the Australian economy. ARA members receive a 10% discount in their tickets with the code PARTNER.


Q. The current state of play in Australia around the many different product stewardship schemes is an issue for retailers, not only regarding management but also floor space. How could the circular economy assist with this? 

Everyone has a role to play in this systems transition. The traditional ‘consume, use once, then throw away’ behaviours are already changing in jurisdictions like Europe and the UK, where the policy and economic levers to design waste out of materials at the beginning, repair, reuse and remanufacture are more advanced. In Australia, we are at the beginning of this journey.

As the federal Government’s $15B National Reconstruction Fund comes online and we build the onshore capability to remanufacture and keep materials here in our own economy for longer, there will be more and more support for retailers. Changing the design of products and the responsibility of manufacturers who make them is also critical to Australia’s transition. There needs to be greater opportunities for manufacturers to take the responsibility and value of the product/material throughout its entire lifecycle.

Again, we invite ARA members to join us at the 2nd Australian Circular Economy Forum to progress and accelerate this important dialogue.


Q. Have any brands or retailers out there managed to transition to a circular economy? Who can we look to guide us in this transition?

Yes, many! Please look at The Circle Awards which Circular Australia is a founding partner of:

You can look at many examples also of “as a service” business models across different sectors. Here companies get much larger value of products through their lifecycle not just one point of sale.

ARA members are warmly invited to attend the Forum to progress and accelerate the circular economy opportunity for Australia. Please reach out to to get discounted tickets.





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