'You can't manage what you can't measure' is a popular refrain among circular economy practitioners, and for good reason. The linear economy has had decades to develop its measurement approach, while in many cases, a completely new methodology is required to measure the circular economy.
The ACE Hub's latest research report, Measuring the Circular Economy: An Australian Perspective, finds circular economy measurement in Australia is emerging, but remains piecemeal and heavily focused on end-of-life outcomes. Those making more significant progress are also disconnected from one another. However, there are opportunities to harness existing data sets to form a more holistic picture of Australia's resource use and propel circular solutions.
The research was conducted by sustainability and circular economy consultancy Edge Environment in collaboration with the ACE Hub. It is the first in a series of projects the ACE Hub is undertaking with its Technical Supporters — a selection of organisations partnering with the Hub to fast-track Australia's circular transition.
The research insights were generated through interviews with technical experts in the fields of circular economy and measurement and surveys of Australian government representatives from the local, state, and federal level.
We sat down with report authors Jess Braun and Dana King from Edge Environment to talk about the key findings of their research. Read on for insights on Australia's existing circular economy metrics, research participant's visions for a future measurement framework and strategies to get us there.
ACE Hub: What is the role of measurement in the transition to a more circular economy?
Edge Environment: To implement any change, we first need to define what is important to us and what our goals are for the future. One of the biggest benefits of measurement is that it forces us to get very clear on these two factors. Once we've established what to measure, the results of measurement provide tangible, quantified evidence to validate progress and inform actions to move forward. As succinctly put by the OECD, "one cannot improve what cannot be measured".
What are we currently measuring in Australia in relation to the circular economy?
Australia's current measurement of the circular economy is largely focused on the management of materials at their end of life, with a predominance for data on the lower 'R-strategies' (including energy recovery and recycling) and disposal. However, there is existing measurement of other relevant data that could be used to form a more holistic picture of our resource use and its impact. This includes for example, trade data on the products and materials we import and export, measures of economic performance and jobs for different sectors, and environmental impact data, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
Several state and local governments have undertaken insightful analysis relating to circular economy, for example material flow mapping for specific materials, or the environmental and lifecycle cost impacts of substitution of virgin materials for recycled materials in roads and buildings. Connecting these stakeholders and leveraging their learnings could accelerate progress for others.
What are some of the key drivers for establishing a circular economy measurement framework for Australia, according to the research?
The collective insights from international and local experts, and domestic government representatives, indicated the key driver for measurement was to provide an evidence-base to progress action towards the circular economy transition. Second to this was a desire to create efficiencies in measurement, i.e., establishing a nation-wide measurement framework and the required infrastructure to streamline data collection and integration, while allowing for reporting at all levels of government.
What are some examples of circular economy measurement frameworks from overseas and where can we learn more about these?
Multiple frameworks have been developed overseas to support nations in their measurement of the circular economy. The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy provides a summary of several of these in their paper Circular Indicators for Governments. There are also instances overseas where nations have adapted or developed their own frameworks. As an example, The Netherlands has developed a tailored measurement framework covering measures of material consumption, the impacts of material consumption and progress on their transition to circularity. They published their inaugural Netherlands Integral Circular Economy Report in January 2021. Colombia has also developed a tailored framework for measuring their transition to a circular economy, with their first national circular economy report published in 2020.
Are there any examples of circular economy measurement frameworks in Australia and where can we learn more about these?
Sustainability Victoria has made great progress towards establishing a holistic circular economy measurement framework, including strong stakeholder engagement in the development process. This is currently being refined following consultation on the draft with industry in late 2021. Sustainability Victoria has indicated a strong will to share the measurement framework and their learnings through the development process to support others to make progress in this space.
In NSW, NSW Circular has recently released a dashboard of Australian Circularity Benchmarks, which collates and presents several readily available data sets at the national or state level, benchmarked to the performance of other nations. The benchmarks cover material consumption and productivity, energy consumption and emissions, percentage of renewable energy installed capacity, waste generation and waste recovery and recycling performance. Building on this dashboard to provide more granular insights, for example at the sector and regional spatial level, would be highly valuable for driving the targeted initiatives that are needed to ultimately change the system.
What are some of the practical things a better measurement structure could help us to achieve here in Australia?
Agreeing on and establishing a clear measurement framework can provide a comprehensive evidence base for:
Identifying areas that need special focus in activating the transition to a circular economy, for example, specific sectors or parts of the value chain.
Analysing the potential impact of policy or system changes.
Informing the prioritisation of initiatives and gaining buy-in from stakeholders for implementing proposed initiatives.
Monitoring progress towards the desired future state of circularity.
Educating decision-makers and society at large on the circular economy and its benefits.
What are the visions for circular economy measurement in Australia from the research?
Reflecting on Australia's current state of circular economy measurement and examples of progress made elsewhere, the research participants envision a future where a coordinated national approach is implemented that strikes a balance between being tailored to Australia's unique context and allowing for standardisation and comparison with other nations. The framework would be founded on a harmonised and robust data management system supported by a defined governance structure to allow for transparency, collaboration and maximisation of shared value.
The research participants shared their visions of indicators that could be included in a measurement framework. Some examples include:
A headline overview of how circular Australia is, such as through a Cyclical Material Use Rate.
Material flow tracking including fast moving materials and long-term stocks.
The rate of R-strategies to recirculate waste materials, particularly looking to better understand the higher R-strategies such as reuse, repair, and remanufacturing.
Products' reusability and expected lifespan.
The relationship between economic measures and material flows.
How important is collaboration across government departments, sectors, etc. in ensuring a measurement framework is successful?
Collaboration is fundamental to the success of measuring the circular economy. As one of our survey respondents noted: "transitioning to a circular economy is incredibly complex, so making sure that all of our work is pointing in the same direction is a good start. Making sure that we have a shared language will ensure that we're all talking about the same thing and will create a level playing field with less confusion for everyone involved".
Were there any findings in the research that stood out to you as particularly significant?
An interesting insight was that all experts felt Australia is well and truly in a position to get started on the journey to developing a circular economy measurement framework and calculate a baseline of our performance. 'Progress over perfection' was strongly emphasised, and a reflection on other nations where measurement is already underway has shown that no one has achieved the perfect measurement of the circular economy yet, but they've gained invaluable learnings and made huge progress by having started on their journey.
In terms of creating the report itself, how important was the collaborative process of working with the ACE Hub as well as expert contributors?
Collaboration is a central message in our findings within the report and similarly, collaboration was key to the success of developing this report. By partnering with ACE Hub, we were able to access both international and national experts in the industry, which provided insights that were integral to the findings presented. The ACE Hub's own representatives also provided contributions, critical thinking and perspectives that helped shape the findings and design the report into a format that is accessible and digestible.
Read the report in full here: Measuring the Circular Economy: An Australian Perspective.
Report launch event
To launch the report, the ACE Hub is co-hosting a virtual session with Edge Environment on Friday February 25 from 12:00 PM-1:00 PM AEDT. The event will bring together the report's authors, an expert contributor to the report and a representative from government to present findings from the research.
Register here to join the discussion.