With CBDs around the world deserted and office buildings sitting empty, the global pandemic has forced many office workers to ask themselves: what happens to all this stuff when it no longer becomes useful? This is a question that commercial removal and storage service Egans has been grappling with for years. The company has been helping businesses remove, store and relocate their office furniture since 1996. Over the past few years, Egans has been collaborating with the tertiary sector to develop circular solutions for used office furniture. Of the 120,000 pieces of furniture they collect each year, Egans currently diverts 80 per cent from landfill through their reuse and remanufacturing programs.
Through its Wise Office Furniture program, Egans repairs, resells and recycles second-hand office furniture, workstations and storage units. They also work one-on-one with clients like the University of Sydney to relocate workstations across the campus, providing an expert dismantling and rebuilding service so as to avoid any waste, and providing access to second-hand furniture where needed. We caught up with Andrew Egan, the founder and managing director of Egans, to talk about the importance of developing circular models and backing them up with data.
Andrew Egan is an auctioneer by trade. When he started Egans, the company resold used office furniture but, when the demand for these products began to dry up, the company had to make some major changes. “We've been dealing with the issue of commercial furniture coming out of the CBD — Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide — for 25 years,” Andrew says. “When we started the marketplace took care of it because everything was saleable. In the mid 2000s, we had to get creative because the sale process started to fail. So we went into the recycle economy.”
What began as recycling has now evolved into a whole suite of circular solutions. “In the last five years, we've been working in collaboration, particularly with the tertiary sector, to develop our circular response to the ongoing problem of furniture and fit-out materials coming out of the city,” Andrew explains. Egans has collaborated with RMIT and the University of Sydney on research that demonstrates economic and environmental benefits of circular business. These partnerships with universities have also been a key driver of change within the company itself. "They’ve really taken it on and they're pushing us to another level,” Andrew says. “They're being really demanding, it's really good."
Andrew’s interest in the circular economy stems from a fascination with marketplaces. “I've always been interested in marketplaces and how they operate,” he tells us. “And really what we're seeing at the moment in the recycle economy is a failure of the marketplace. So in order for the marketplace to be effective, going forward, it needs to be circular.”
For Andrew, the circular economy represents an opportunity to develop an efficient marketplace. “A marketplace that produces rubbish is not a very good marketplace,” he explains. Andrew believes an effective marketplace should address its non-marketable items — i.e. waste — as well as its marketable ones. If waste is acknowledged at the point of procurement, we can start developing solutions to reduce, and eventually eradicate, that waste. A world without waste is the end goal for Andrew.
In a circular economy “there would be no bin”, he says. “The outcome of the circular economy is dead simple. Turning [a product] into something different then using it for a while and then putting it in the bin is not circular. Turning it into something different is part of the recycle economy. If the thing that you turn your material into then ends up in the bin, it's not circular. In the circular economy there is no bin. Challenge number one.”
The problem that Egans identified in the linear model of office furniture collection and disposal was the amount of waste that ends up landfill. In Sydney, the average office de-fit sends and estimated 79 per cent of furniture and workstations to landfill. That means that only 21 per cent is recovered for future use. Egans set out to reverse this trend by setting themselves the initial goal of an 80 per cent landfill diversion rate, a milestone that they’ve already achieved. Now, the company is working on procurement and education initiatives with the tertiary sector to push this figure all the way up to 100 per cent or, as Andrew puts it, “going full circle”.
When asked what drove him to make these changes, Andrew says he wanted to tackle the challenge of coming up with an operational circular business model. “It's a challenge. And also, it's not an academic challenge,” he says. “There's a lot of academic reference and a lot of consulting work goes on in and around the circular economy. But my interest is in applying practical solutions. You can apply a solution very differently when you've got 120 guys, 15 trucks, 20,000 square metres, a depot, an auction house, a removal company and a storage company.”
I think the fundamental question of, 'Is the model circular?' is a really important one. I have seen organisations that are chasing circular outcomes, where their process is not circular.
Understanding what is meant by the term ‘circular economy’ is crucial to developing a circular business. This might seem like common sense, but it is something that is often overlooked according to Andrew. “I think the fundamental question of, 'Is the model circular?' is a really important one. I have seen organisations that are chasing circular outcomes, where their process is not circular,” Andrew says. Before he even began developing new processes for Egans, Andrew set out to understand the differences between recycling and circularity by attending conferences about circularity and circular design. “I think one of the most important things to do around the circular economy is for everybody to clearly identify the difference in their area between the recycle economy and the circular economy. It's sometimes so subtle that people think they're being circular, but they're not,” he says.
And the learning process did not stop there. In order to implement circular solutions, Andrew and his staff had to learn how to build a website so customers could more easily access furniture for reuse, improve the way they handle and display data and develop joinery workshop capacity in order to repair damaged goods or remanufacture new furniture from salvaged material. Perhaps the most important of these new skills was the capacity to capture data that can convey the benefits of circularity.
“If you want to really be circular you really need to prove it. And the only way you can prove it is with data,” Andrew explains. “And I can tell you, I would get nobody at my presentations if I said I want to talk to you about removals. They all want to talk about the circular economy. They all want to have a charitable outcome. And they're all really interested in the data that proves it. They're the three most important things that our customers want: feel good, circular, data. And because we're auctioneers we feed back data at a granular level.”
For every piece of furniture they handle — which is around pieces 300 per day — Egans can show customers "how much it sold for and who it sold to and, if it was recycled, how many tonnes of material were recovered and the remainder that went to the tip".
Andrew says that Egans is over three-quarters of the way towards achieving its goal of becoming a fully circular business. “About 60 per cent of what we produce is either remanufactured or reused. And 80 per cent of what we transact is reused, remanufactured or recycled,” he explains. While the company hasn’t yet phased out the need for a bin, it does know exactly what goes into that bin.
“It goes right back to point number one: in a circular model, there's no bin. And we've got a bin,” Andrew says. “But the great thing is that if we show that bin to our customers, then it gives us something to work on. So, by breaking everything down as far as we possibly can to avoid landfill, and then having a look at the bin, then you know what you've got to do.”
The benefits of going circular have already been enormous for the Egans. “We've never had so much interest in our company. We've never been so engaged with our customers. We've never generated results like we're generating now, both from our typical measures of landfill avoidance and resource recovery and volume,” Andrew says. “The volumes are sky high, customer interaction is sky high.”
In spite of COVID, Egans is growing at a rapid rate. “We've been around for 25 years and in the last three years we've grown faster than ever before,” Andrew says. He attributes this growth to their ability to implement effective circular solutions and communicate the value of circularity using data; “We're in the conversation and we can prove it”.
“I think just keep your eye clearly focused on the outcome that you're trying to achieve and don't let anything get in the way. And the other key one is collaborate. Talk. Know what the outcome you want to achieve is and then collaborate.
You have to know what it is you want to achieve, you have to know what you're trying to do. And if you really are trying to build a circular model, you've got to know that what you're building is circular. Because otherwise, there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, it's just not circular.”