Date released
14 December 2023

Creating new value and jobs from waste streams may be the most recognised form of the circular economy in action, but it is a much broader concept that aims to keep the global consumption of resources within planetary limits.

The first key principle of the circular economy is preventing waste in the first place; recycling is effectively a last resort.

At the simplest level, a circular economy is based on 3 key principles:
- eliminate waste and pollution
- circulate materials at their highest value, for as long as possible
- regenerate nature.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading international advocate for the circular economy, extends on this to distinguish between technical and biological resource cycles, which require different responses.

The technical cycle refers to goods manufactured from finite resources, everything from cars and houses to clothes, electronics and plastics.

These are the primary focus of strategies to keep products circulating for as long as possible – designing goods with end-of-life re-use in mind, extending use by refurbishing, remanufacturing or repairing products, through rental or shared ownership schemes to maximise use, and recycling materials at the end
of their life.

The biological cycle refers to materials that can biodegrade and safely return to the earth and is the primary focus of regeneration strategies – building natural capital, rebuilding soils and increasing biodiversity.

Farming, forestry and fisheries practices that create positive outcomes for nature are at the heart of the regeneration strategies, along with the regenerative use of by-products or ‘waste’. This might include value-adding to create new products, composting or producing biogas and other biochemical feedstocks, all of which will eventually biodegrade.

Circular development

Dr Andrew Noble has spent more than 30 years developing and delivering agriculturally focused development programs around the world, for a range of international organisations including ACIAR and most recently for the United Nations.

For the past decade, the circular economy has been an important part of his own thinking, although projects have often been developed in response to local issues, and not as part of a larger coordinated approach.

Co-composting human and organic waste to create fertiliser for farmers in India was a solution to water pollution caused by the dumping of septic tank waste in local rivers.

Another project in northern Vietnam used simple biodigesters to generate power for homes from human and animal waste.

his was only one part of a solution to the problem of eroding soils on steep slopes in the region. Grasses selected to stabilise slopes also provided fodder for livestock. Livestock helped households to increase their incomes, but also produced more waste, in the form of manure.

‘This project was actually a real light-bulb moment for me,’ said Dr Noble.

‘Instead of just looking at the problem we wanted to solve, we took a step back to look at the households we were working with, to see what they needed. The most obvious need was power for heating and cooking, and that became our entry point to working with them.

‘I think circularity has emerged as people have broadened their view, to think beyond their own capabilities, drawing in experts from different areas, who have the same agenda – it’s all about sustainability in the long term.

‘For me, the circular economy in practice has been about taking waste, or something that doesn’t really have a value, and adding value to it.

‘The big thing is the creation of jobs that go with a circular economy and creating opportunities for small entrepreneurs. There are a whole lot of smart young people that just need to be given an opportunity.’

He said it is also important to focus on the largest high-value returns. Composting is a solution for organic waste, but it’s a low-value return from high-value horticultural produce, for example.

Systems that use black soldier flies and biodigesters to process organic waste have the potential to create more products, support greater economic activity and provide greater social and environmental benefits.

Hands in the soil on either side of a seedling
Maintaining biological cycles and building the productivity of our natural resources and farming systems is part of circular economy thinking. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem

From puzzle pieces to policy

ACIAR Director of Multilateral Engagement, Dr Julianne Biddle said within the scope of its operations, ACIAR was already working on various ‘pieces of the puzzle’ that fit in with the higher aspirations of the circular economy.

This includes projects to help partner countries improve soils, reduce chemical and fertiliser inputs, reduce waste in the supply chain, and re-use agricultural and food processing by-products in ways that support both job creation and improved agricultural productivity.

‘As a concept, the circular economy is still evolving in Australia, and in agriculture generally,’ said Dr Biddle.

‘But I see it as an emerging priority for us and for other funders of development programs, in the same way that climate and gender have become priorities that are integrated across all our programs.

‘We’ll need to bring a higher-level perspective together with the work we are already doing in a comprehensive way that looks at producing more from less, and reducing waste and impacts on the environment from cradle to grave.’

Read on to find out more about some of the circular economy projects ACIAR is supporting.