Organics and the circular economy

organics circular economy

Organics recycling is a perfect example of the circular economy in action. John McKew, National Executive Officer, Australian Organics Recycling Association, explains.

Before I commenced in the role of National Executive Officer for the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA) in June 2022, I cannot recall hearing the term ‘circular economy’. Perhaps I had, but it certainly never resonated or intrigued me enough to further investigate the understanding or application more fully. 

With my previous background predominantly focused on farming/agriculture/primary production, it was clearly not as prevalent a concept, as it is within the recycling industries. Regardless, it is now a term that seems to be ubiquitous – a quick web search uncovers 193,000,000 results for ‘circular economy’.

I anticipated that locking down a consistent definition would be quite difficult based on my initial search results but there are some consistencies (pleasingly) on what I uncovered. 

The common themes include references to sharing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products; minimising/eliminating/recapturing waste; the application of restorative or regenerative activities. In practice, a circular economy model implies reducing waste to a minimum. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible thanks to recycling. 

Eminently sensible, especially when we consider the potential positive contributions including reducing the demand for raw materials that would slow down the use of natural resources, reduce landscape and habitat disruption; reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and aid in climate change mitigation; the economic benefits to consumers.

Furthermore, once I started delving into the AORA Roadmap, Vision 2031, I discovered a key sentence …. the circular economy works best in organics recycling, because it is, in effect, the industrialisation of a natural process.  

This makes perfect sense, but then the more I thought about it in the broader sense, I became concerned that we might have missed some important foundation steps to achieving the ideals of a circular economy. For example, what about (circular) collaboration and (circular) communication/education? Are they implied within the circular economy model or is there a need to address these needs in advance of believing a circular economy can be derived in their absence? 

Effective collaboration and communication/education strategies are vitally important when you have a wide ambit of stakeholders (all with different needs, motivations, etc.), different processes and products, varying end-use needs, etc. 

Actually, effective collaboration and communication/education strategies are important whenever you want to introduce change and have that change imbedded. And this is what the circular economy is about – it is about changing how we manage and think about a large number of processes and products that in the past, we took for granted and didn’t think too much about. Afterall, the product life cycle concept has traditionally been a marketing tool, not a circular economy tool.

So where does the Australian organics recycling industry, which AORA (Australian Organics Recycling Association) represents as the peak industry body, fit into this? As said in Vision 2031, the circular economy works best in organics recycling. It is a great example of what can be achieved through a successful circular economy model if we have effective collaboration and communication/education strategies. 

But there is still a way to go in many areas of Australia towards achieving circularity for GO (garden organics), FO (food organics); FOGO is proving to be challenging in some areas. 

Producing valuable end-use products from organics recycling such as compost, mulches and soil conditioners, all of which can be extremely valuable inputs to a number of end-use markets, including primary production (i.e., growing food and fibre), parks and gardens and road construction, will be impeded if we cannot ‘tell’ the story of how this is achieved, why it is important and how everyone involved needs to play a part and how. We need to keep the story simple, but how is the next big question for us to tackle.  

For one, I think we need to draw the connections clearly – recycling your organics waste carefully enables a clean feedstock stream for the organics recycling processing industry. The offset of this is that contamination, especially any non-organics, impedes the organics recycling process and can compromise the end product. That is costly to manage and will undermine the circularity. 

The actual organics recycling process is largely natural – it uses nature’s own processes to take organic material which will break-down and decompose – using a little time, air, light and from time-to-time, a little agitation of the material to turn it over and keep the natural process working effectively.

After a relatively short period of time, organic material has turned from something we once didn’t think too much about throwing into a bin, to a high-quality product that looks like very fertile, rich garden soil and for someone who previously worked in farming/agriculture/primary production, it looks like a product you could use to grow almost anything with.

Organics recycling is absolutely a wonderful example of the circular economy in action. Instead of organics ending up in landfill, it is processed naturally into a valuable end-use product for another use/life. If we can implement effective collaboration and communication/education strategies in support of organics recycling – draw the linkages between both ends of the process, we have a greatly improved chance of success. That success will ultimately benefit everyone. 

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