The Circular Experiment was Australia's first circular economy pilot project
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for 99.7% of all Australian businesses
In 2017 sisters Jaine and Ash Morris embarked on a six-month project to explore how businesses could put the circular economy into practice. Called The Circular Experiment, the project engaged 45 businesses on the same street and, with a focus on resource efficiency, helped them reduce their bills while improving their environmental impacts.
The sisters have since taken the learnings from this project and founded circular economy consultancy, Coreo. Among their other exciting projects they have worked on, they were part of the team responsible for creating the strategy for Australia’s first circular economy community at Yarrabilba.
Ash’s background is in environmental health science, with a focus on the drivers of waste and how material flows impact on our economy and the environment. Jaine explains how it was the hope Ash had for the circular economy that really sparked her own interest and passion in the subject. “Initially, it was important to me because the best person I knew in the world to affect change was incredibly encouraged by this, and that's my sister, Ash,” she says. “And, gradually, as I got my teeth into what the circular economy is and the impact it can create, particularly for individuals, I was excited and enthused.”
Jaine is a self-described people person and Ash is very technically minded. The sisters' different skill sets have allowed them to connect the environmental and economic impacts of the circular economy with its social and community benefits. “For me, the circular economy feels like this giant Trojan horse to try and achieve things that are important in the community and create connection amongst people,” Jaine explains. “When you think about Ash's skill set — very much environment and economy focused — and my skill set — very much focused on people— those things really marry together quite nicely to deliver quite a holistic picture.”
While both had some knowledge of the circular economy before launching The Circular Experiment, they recognised that there was a real lack of examples to look to in Australia. This drove them to want to create tangible action around the circular economy. Sitting on Ash’s bedroom floor with a binder, they mapped out the initial ideas that would become The Circular Experiment, a project that brought together 45 businesses in one street to help them implement circular solutions.
The Circular Experiment “was born from a place of curiosity”, Jaine says. Through the project, she and Ash sought to answer questions like: “What does [circular economy] actually mean? How does someone engage with this? Do they do it by themselves? Or do they work with other people?".
Going into the experiment, the sisters were open minded. Rather than setting goals of diversion from landfill and revenue creation, they truly treated the project as an experiment and a learning experience. Ash and Jaine's goal was to help businesses solve their existing challenges while using the circular economy as a toolkit.
For me, the circular economy feels like this giant Trojan horse to try and achieve things that are important in the community and create connection amongst people.
Jaine tells us how they came to focus The Circular Experiment in one street, Ocean Street on the Sunshine Coast. “Initially, what we thought we would try and do was apply circular economy thinking to three different contexts. We were going to pick an institution, so a school or hospital, a home, because we were really interested in what that meant, and then we're going to pick a small business. After talking to some mentors, they said ‘Do yourself a favour and try and get some economies of scale, in the first instance, because that will make your life a lot easier’. Whether that's a big institution like a hospital, or a number of businesses, or a large business, or a community of homes. For us, we chose one street.”
When they started in 2017, information about the circular economy was not as easily accessible as it is today. Jaine praises the 'Creating Value' report, which was commissioned by the South Australian Government and looks into the potential value of the circular economy for South Australia, in helping to develop their plan.
After choosing Ocean Street as their testing ground, the sisters also chose to zero in on one concept of the circular economy — resource efficiency, with a focus on energy, water and waste. “We chose to start there with the businesses because it made sense. It was something that they interacted within. They all had energy bills, they all had water bills, they all managed waste. And so it was something we could quite easily talk to them about,” Jaine explains.
Not wanting access to funding to slow them down, they decided to self-fund the program for a period of six months. Seeing it as a learning journey for themselves, they also made the decision to not charge the businesses for their services. “We recognised that we can self-fund our lives for six months without dying. So we did. But then so we're like, ‘Okay, we've got six months, we want to try and understand what the circular economy means’. We didn't set giant targets of waste reduction or community engagement or revenue increase. We were really open-minded about what the end looked like.”
While the businesses they were trying to engage were varied, from bars and restaurants to hairdressers and travel agents, they all had one key thing in common: they were busy and time poor. This created a challenge when engaging with them. “We knew we wanted as many businesses as we could to participate so we wrote an email that we thought was great,” Jaine says. “We told them it was going to be for free for six months. We told them what the circular economy was. We used the definition by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. I walked up and down the street got the contact names and details of everybody. We sent that email out. No one responded.”
Working with business managers and owners who are so time poor, the sisters realised very quickly they had to be able to articulate what they needed from businesses and what was in it for them. The key was to establish trust on the street, something they achieved by showing their face and, in Jaine's words, being “really freakin’ helpful”. “Building trust, [our] capacity to listen and our dedication to showing up again and again and again… those things gave us so much credibility on the street,” Jaine says. “Just showing up and listening was so incredibly important … understanding what their problems were … then trying to use circular economy as a toolkit for change.”
In the first couple of months of the experiment they signed up 45 businesses. The first step for the business, and one that Jaine describes as the biggest hurdle, was handing over their bills. Using 12 months worth of bills, Jaine and Ash worked with individual businesses to reduce their energy, water and body corporate bills (which include waste bills).
Energy was their first target. They partnered with the University of the Sunshine Coast and were able to get a student on board who completed audits for businesses. For one of the early adopters and biggest restaurants on the street, this audit found a 40 per cent saving in their electricity bill from really simple actions such as moving the ice machine, as per manufacturing instructions, off the wall and cleaning filters and vents.
They also engaged with the Queensland Government’s ecoBiz programme which provides businesses with free advice, training and workshops to help improve sustainability and lower operating costs. This program provided consultants who came to teach businesses how they could save on their energy and water bills. “They started seeing incremental decreases in their bill [and] we got a bit of a domino effect with our hospitality providers,” Jaine says.
The next step was to help businesses with their waste. “We got all the hospitality providers together and we did a waste audit. We discovered that almost 35 to 40 per cent of their general waste was food waste. Another 45 or 35 per cent was recyclables and then the other part was general.”
From this audit they decided to tackle food waste. First, they found a local commercial composter who wanted this waste. Then, they had to sort out collection. “We partnered with BioPak who gave us a 600-litre bin which was game changing … Then we went and offered training with all of the staff members in these restaurants.” Jaine says this plan was initially met with scepticism. “Everyone said to us, it won't work. You will get ridiculous contamination," she explains. "However, we audited all of our organics before it went into the commercial composter. We had less than 0.5 per cent contamination.”
Another initiative that they launched was a platform which allowed businesses to share under-utilised equipment with their neighbours. Sharing platforms are a key business model to enable the circular economy, allowing under-utilised products to be used more effectively and reducing the demand for new products.
“The platform for business to share their assets took us two and a half months to build… then we got it up and were so excited,” Jaine says. "However, we realised that we had created a two-sided marketplace which meant that we had to get stuff on the marketplace and then people had to buy that stuff." When visiting businesses to encourage them to use the platform they quickly discovered that the businesses were far too busy to engage with the platform. Not giving up on the initiative, the sisters understood that this could have value in a different context and gifted it to the Sunshine Coast University to help students share items such as furniture.
Beyond the costs and environmental savings for business, Jaine says the thing they are most proud of is how the program has helped bring businesses on the street together, with all 56 businesses forming a new independent traders association.
Another success was the positive exposure for the participating businesses. “I would write a media release, not for us, but for the businesses participating and I would send it out to media contacts and it would land. And so, all of a sudden, Channel 7 would go down to the street and then film it,” Jaine says. “And we probably got a dozen, maybe 15, media mentions over the course of that six months for the businesses on the street.”
Jaine and Ash invested their time and money in a true learning-by-doing approach in The Circular Experiment and were able to prove benefits to business, from cost savings to positive exposure. And, they describe it as “ the best investment of their lives”.
Three years on the sisters and their team are now working with some of Australia’s largest businesses to action the circular economy including Dexus, Frasers Property, Mirvac, Lendlease, BHP and Anglo American.
“Don't wait for permission to do something. And it doesn't have to be something giant like a whole big street project. There's so much you can do by bootstrapping … instead of waiting for the money … you don't need lots of stuff, you have what you need to learn; just get out there and give it a whirl."