The circular economy is gaining momentum in a regional city on Australia's east coast known for its beautiful lakes, wetlands, and beaches. Lake Macquarie City Council is the first in Australia to employ a full-time Circular Economy Lead and develop a circular economy policy and framework. The council is also working with other local councils and the business community to galvanise change in the region.
Debbie O'Byrne, the woman behind these initiatives, is a shining example of the things you can achieve by cracking on and getting stuff done. Here, she shares the achievements of her council and advice for others who want to take action.
Debbie O'Byrne is the first council worker in Australia to be employed in a full-time circular economy role. She took on the role of Circular Economy Lead at Lake Macquarie City Council, or Lake Mac for short, in January 2020 and in just over a year has developed one of Australia's first circular economy policies, started upskilling council staff, launched infrastructure-related projects and gathered data to support the circular transition.
Born in Ireland and based in New Zealand before the role at Lake Mac brought her to Australia, Debbie has spent her career building communities. Her previous background is in social work and health where she explored topics like how the design of cities can both contribute to and combat social issues like obesity.
"I've always been interested in those systems issues, but with a strong interest in sustainability," she tells us.
In 2013, Debbie returned to university to get her MBA and that's where her passion for the circular economy was cemented. She began to work as a consultant in this space and was part of the working group that brought the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to New Zealand for the world's first Pacific Indigenous Circular Economy Summit.
A few years later she decided to make the move across the ditch for a full-time circular economy role.
"I'd done some research on Lake Mac and I knew they were a progressive council," she says, emphasising that this values alignment was extremely important to her.
"I didn't want this to just be a tick box exercise, we were actually going to do meaningful work."
The ultimate goal of Lake Mac's circular economy initiatives is building a better future for its residents.
"We shape the future when we do nothing the same as we shape the future when we decide to do something," Debbie says. "By not taking action, you're still shaping the future of a city, so we have a bias for action."
For Debbie, the circular transition is very much motivated by a sense of responsibility to future generations.
"One day I'm going to have to answer to my grandkids when they ask: 'what did you do when you knew?'"
Debbie believes councils are well-placed to tackle sustainability challenges because they are "very close to the issues". Councils have their hands on the levers of systems within a city such as water, energy, waste and transport, she explains. This means they are able to redesign the way those systems work.
The challenge however is getting people with different job descriptions, objectives and budgets to collaborate on solving problems that cross department boundaries and embrace systems thinking. The siloed style of working often found in local government and budget tribalism are two things Debbie says we must cut through for circular economy work to be successful.
We're challenged with wicked problems and we have to start with thinking in different ways, and using different platforms, different tools, different skill sets," she says. "It's not just about the circular economy, but also building that capacity and capability to think systemically.
There are three key aspects to Debbie's role:
Policy — developing circular economy policy and framework
Materials — understanding the impacts of materials and coming up with strategies to reduce reliance on virgin, high carbon materials
Innovation — building an enabling ecosystem for businesses in the region to embrace circular principles
The Lake Mac circular economy policy and framework have already been developed and can be accessed here. Debbie ran a series of workshops to socialise the concepts of a circular economy and to listen and learn about what was important to staff and councillors in devising the new policy. Now, she is in the process of co-designing circular economy action plans with council teams.
Debbie has several materials management projects in the works, including commissioning a City Scan for Lake Macquarie. Developed by Circle Economy in the Netherlands, the City Scan is a tool that helps local governments understand the material flows in their region to identify priority sectors and materials for potential circular economy interventions. For Lake Mac, the City Scan exercise will help quantify problem areas as well as the potential benefits of circular solutions. The council is also working with ACE Hub Technical Supporters Edge Environment to develop a tool that demonstrates the environmental and cost benefits of procuring circular materials for public infrastructure projects such as laying new roads.
When it comes to innovation, Debbie is working with the Hunter Joint Organisation to engage councils and businesses across the Hunter and Central Coast region in circular initiatives. You can read more about that project here.
Below, Debbie shares her advice and learnings from her first year and a half as Lake Mac's Circular Economy Lead.
Whether you are part of a council or looking to make change in your own business or community, Debbie says gathering data that supports the case for a circular economy is a good first step. For Lake Mac, the City Scan tool will be used to identify both opportunities and knowledge gaps.
"A key part of that project is to capture all the data gaps, all the barriers to getting the data we want. We know the linear economy has had hundreds of years to build its data sets and we're starting from scratch because we're asking different questions," Debbie explains.
Lake Mac Council conducted process mapping and found two key barriers to implementing solutions at scale: procurement and specifications/regulations. Lake Mac has been successful in setting up pilot projects to trail new circular materials in the past and Debbie is now working through the challenge of adopting these processes more widely. She says procurement processes have proved particularly difficult to change.
"You've got a little bit of wriggle room and a bit more risk appetite for one-off pilots, innovation projects, but then once they have to go into the procurement system, all of the rules come down like a like a cascade on top of you."
With government spending accounting for a significant portion of Australia's GDP, Debbie sees institutionalising circular procurement as a critical part of her role. Debbie has had discussions with Local Government Procurement who are keen to innovate and find ways to support circular outcomes through procurement approaches.
Lake Mac's circular economy policy and framework are a starting point for other council teams to develop more specific circular economy plans. The resources have been made open source so that other councils can also use them as guides for their own projects.
Debbie says circular economy plans need to be tailored to the specific problem they are trying to address and is working with Lake Mac's tourism, infrastructure and procurement teams to define goals and targets. She says it is important for each of these groups to own their plans by setting their own KPIs and her role is a supportive and advisory one.
"Some of the feedback to sustainability or environmental teams over the years is that people feel they are imposed upon and told what to do. And I am very deliberately not doing that," she says.
"Each team needs to draw on their own strengths, understand their own systems, the levers they can pull, then I support them to co-design a circular economy action plan."
While Lake Mac's circular economy projects are still in the early stages, they are already generating activity right across the Hunter region.
"We've managed to create significant momentum in the circular economy space that the region can leverage for future projects," Debbie says.
"Look for the resources that are available, don't try to try to reinvent the wheel. If somebody's got a good idea out there just reach out and ask them: can you use it, can you collaborate? And I think there's benefit to just getting on and doing a couple of projects, even if you don't have a Circular Economy Lead there are probably some projects you could do some basic research on and do.
We didn't wait till we had our policy and framework to get on with other projects, because by the time you get [the policy done], you've already been doing the work and it creates its own momentum. So just get on and do a couple of things while you're trying to build a more formalised systemic policy framework.
Take off a bite-sized chunk of the elephant, don't try to do everything just pick a couple of projects where there's already some appetite. There'll be a coalition of the willing in your organisation, find them and enable them while you're trying to do your business case for your Circular Economy Lead.
Just get down and do things and don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help and use the resources that are already out there."