Trialling circular economy on a tiny Australian island

By Lucy Jones  June 15th, 2021

The isolation of this community-owned and run island means it faces very specific resource management challenges, but it may also hold the key to the solutions.

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Norfolk Island is a tiny Australian territory located in the Southwest Pacific. At just 8km long and 5km wide, the island is home to less than 2,000 people. Norfolk is a 2.5-hour flight from mainland Australia and anything that isn't produced there arrives via air freight or sea.   

When we phone Norfolk resident Rebekah Gupte, the island hasn't had a shipment for months. There is no milk or flour at the supermarket and locals are down to their last few kegs of beer.  

"Being such an isolated place and not having access to everything immediately means people are used to making do with what they have," Rebekah says. 

"The residents of the island have lived sustainably for many generations by eating local, seasonal produce, sharing resources and making the most of what they have on the island."

Rebekah moved to Norfolk in 2019 to set up a small business raising ducks for meat, producing pasture-raised eggs and making yoghurt for supermarkets and cafes on the island. With a degree in Resource and Environmental Science and a passion for conservation, Rebekah is on a mission to protect the place she now calls home.  

"I was always brought up to live sustainably and have struggled with the disposable society we live in," she says. 

"Norfolk Island has a history of circularity, due to its remoteness and small population. In its early days there was little waste, everything was valued and shared amongst the community. But in recent years it has become part of the disposable culture, just like everywhere else."

Rebekah is working on a proposal to set up a resource centre on Norfolk that would cycle valuable materials like glass jars. The idea came about when she tried to set up her own business selling yogurt in reusable jars and ran into two major problems. The first was the prohibitive cost of importing the jars she needed to start the business ($10,000 for 2,000 jars), and the second was finding an efficient way to clean the used jars.  

"I started talking to other producers and realised they had the same issues," Rebekah says. 

"The only dairy on the island sold their milk in returnable glass bottles but stopped this as they had difficulty cleaning the bottles, had to wait a long time for returns and often didn't have enough bottles returned for the next batch of milk."

Rebekah believes a resource centre could help alleviate the hefty financial and environmental costs that come with getting products on and off the island.  

"Shipping is a big issue on the island due to the rough seas and lack of anywhere for ships to dock. All unloading has to be done at sea, which is dangerous and costly. There are fewer and fewer ships available that can still work in this way. Air freight is another option, but is costly, and for heavy items is unaffordable for many small businesses," Rebekah says. 

At the other end of a product's life, the story is the same. Norfolk currently stockpiles most of its waste for export. Glass is crushed for reuse on the island, but other materials such as building waste and occasionally hard plastics are burnt and the ash by-product is thrown into the sea. 

"It's very expensive for us to manage our waste appropriately," Norfolk Island council Environment and Planning manager, Philip Reid, explains.  

"For us to package waste up and send it back to the mainland, that comes with a huge cost. Council has been looking at areas we can avoid that process for materials that can be reused or recycled." 

The council currently recycles glass and organic waste but has not been able to tackle other materials due to lack of finance and infrastructure. With the majority of the island's income generated by tourism, COVID has also had a significant impact on council funding.  

"We continue to manage waste in a way that is not consistent with modern standards, but it is very much the aspiration of the council and the community to prevent those sorts of activities moving forward," Philip says.  

Rebekah sees circularity as a potential solution to the problems faced by both council and businesses on Norfolk.   

"A circular economy can reduce the need to bring in more items, reduce the need to ship waste off the island and reduce transport issues for the island." 

She is currently in talks with council, small businesses and disability support workers about setting up a social enterprise that would take reusable glass out of the waste cycle. The proposed resource centre would start by cleaning and de-labelling glass jars for reuse before expanding to other materials.  

"While the centre will start with glass products, the plan is to also take other reusable products out of the waste cycle and clean them up for resale. For example, we are talking with Lids4Kids about the possibility of setting up facilities to process the plastic from lids that are currently not recycled into products imported onto the island such as plant pots, bowls, etcetera," Rebekah explains.  

"To be able to set up systems to allow us to reduce our reliance on plastics and reuse the resources we already have on island would enable us to really strive for an island-wide circular economy."

There is already a thriving culture of repair and reuse on Norfolk Island. Locals regularly repurpose items — old bathtubs become cattle drinking stations and large shipping containers are reused to transport water. The local Men's Shed also turns waste materials into new products for the community to use. They are currently using waste pallets and shipping materials to make raised garden beds for elderly people to use.  

Many single-use plastic bags on Norfolk have also been replaced with reusable alternatives thanks to the island's active Boomerang Bag group. Set up in 2015, the group supplies bags to businesses on the island for locals and tourists to use. 

"The team meet every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons between 1 and 3pm. There are eight volunteers and we average between 40-50 bags per afternoon," volunteer Margaret Kiernan says.   

"We make three sizes of bags: the general large shopping bag, these are distributed to the two main supermarkets, a narrower heavier weight bag suitable for carrying wine bottles, these go into the liquor bond store, and a smaller bag suitable for holding prescriptions for the pharmacy."

Boomerang Bags are made with waste items donated by the community including textiles, tables and chairs to work from and even the group's cutting table, which is an old table tennis table.   

"It is truly a community project, all helping to rid the global problem of plastic," Margaret says.   

Apart from one Commonwealth Bank, all businesses on Norfolk are community owned and run. Rebekah believes this gives the island an advantage when it comes to implementing circular solutions.  

"Business on Norfolk is run by its residents," she explains. "This makes change easier because the people who make the decisions are based on island and own the businesses they run."

So far, the local council and the community are very supportive of Rebekah's plan. The next step is securing the investment required to get things off the ground.  

"With some support to set things up, we could easily start new industries to become more circular," Rebekah says.  

"The more we can reuse our waste, the less waste we create, the less we have to spend to ship our waste off the island and the more council can do to support the community in other ways."

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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