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Thinking in circles: Canberra’s circular economies

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Australians each generate 2.7 tonnes of rubbish each year—roughly the weight of an African elephant. Most of that ends up as landfill.

But the linear take-make-waste system isn’t how it has to be. A growing number of Canberra businesses are creating a new vision for a circular economy—and showing how we can rely on renewables, recycling and reuse to create a closed-loop.

Last week I spoke to three Canberra visionaries—Sophie Fisher from Girls on Bikes, Capital Brewing’s Laurence Kain and Sasa Sestic from Ona Coffee—about how they are thinking in circles.

Toasting the circular economy

Capital Brewing is one of Australia’s fastest-growing beer brands. Cofounder Laurence and his business partner Tom Hertel (pictured above) are working towards a zero-waste brewhouse.

Sustainability has been part of the plan since the brewery opened on Dairy Road in 2017. The Capital Brewing crew opted for cans, for example, because they boast a higher recycling rate than bottles. Cans are also lighter and more easily transported, which means fewer truck movements and fewer emissions.

Capital Brewing reuses all of its hops—“about six tonnes a year,” according to Laurence—as well as all of its yeast.

“We got together with the people at Landtasia organic compost farm and we give them our spent grain out of the brewhouse,” explains Laurence.

“To consolidate on transport, we also give them our hop product and waste yeast and they compost it. It’s high in nitrogen and other microbes and nutrients.

“We also noticed one of the biggest waste points was brewers’ malt coming in 25-kilo bags, so we established a partnership with the grain supplier and they partially-funded the installation of a silo so we can receive a full truckload of grain,” Laurence says.

“This massively reduces transport and we’re not sending plastic heavy-duty bags to landfill each week.”

But circular thinking is not just about recycling—or even about reducing consumption. It also means questioning whether, with creativity and innovation, we can build a restorative economy.

“I’ve studied permaculture and went to the Orana Steiner school and I think that has made me think in a different way. I spotted early on that we were putting valuable product down the drain.”

Laurence says partnerships are the mission-critical success factor.

“I feel like we’ve been successful in partnering with our suppliers to co-fund some of our projects. We’re in a capital-intensive business, but once you spot the opportunity and are a bit creative, you can generate a positive return on investment in a three-to-five-year time horizon.”

Spinning in circles

Sophie Fisher, the founder and director of Girls on Bikes, moved to Canberra from Tasmania about nine years ago, and discovered that “Canberra’s such a beautiful place to cycle.”

But many refugee and migrant women who move to Canberra don’t make that same discovery, because they never learn to ride.

“I thought—we need to do something about that,” says Sophie.

After securing a grant from YWCA Canberra in 2017, Sophie established Girls on Bikes. Ten women learned how to cycle that year, 24 the next, and last year 50 women signed up.

Girls On Bikes.

The program is primarily promoted through word-of-mouth, and Sophie says “it’s lovely when a woman who’s done the program tells her friends.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but how is it circular?

“We take any opportunity we can to reuse and repurpose things,” Sophie explains. Bikes are donated from the community, and after a thorough safety check, are given to the women participating in the program.

Sophie Fisher.

Sophie says her big lesson is “be clear about what you need”. Secondhand bikes are great, but helmets must be brand new. When bikes “aren’t quite up to scratch”, Sophie turns to Goodspeed who repurpose the parts through a monthly Bike Swap Meet.

“But we always do our best to reuse things we’re collecting from the community.”

“The most important advice I can give is to reach out and speak to people,” Sophie adds.

“There are so many people in Canberra doing interesting things, and there are so many opportunities for collaboration. Work with others.”

Grinding down the waste

Sasa Sestic, the director of ONA Coffee, agrees. Sasa is something of a Canberra celebrity, with a swag of national and international awards under his belt, including World Barista Champion.

Sasa was driven to create a second company, Project Origin, which works directly with coffee farmers and imports coffee to Australia, after a trip to India uncovered a difficult truth.

“I realised that sustainability in third world countries wasn’t being looked at—sustainability of food, wages, chemicals in the soil…I decided to establish a company with direct-trade relationships that would champion sustainability in third world farms.”

Sasa Sestic. Credit: Martin Ollman/DOMA Group.

A few years later, Sasa “started to think bigger” and scrutinise the sustainability of his entire operation. ONA Coffee’s Fyshwick operations are now solar-powered and they are gradually changing their packaging to recyclable materials. In late 2019, they swapped all their freight packaging to 100% recycled materials.

Customers can collect the hessian sacks used to transport ONA’s coffee for their gardens, and they offer various byproducts of coffee roasting to be used as fertilisers and compost. ONA uses up to 115 coffee sacks—each one filled with 60 kilograms of coffee—each week and not one has ended up at the tip.

ONA. Credit: Martin Ollman.

Used coffee grounds also find a new life as fertiliser at The Truffle Farm, and the team at the Highroad café are investigating how to make coffee scrubs and face masks, explains Sasa.

The possibilities from a simple bean are mind-blowing, but Sasa’s advice is simple.

“Get together with your team and your network to discuss how your business can make a more positive sustainable impact. Have a list of 10 to 20 items and start with whatever ticks the most boxes—the actions that are achievable and, importantly, that the entire team is happy to do. Start small but think big.”

Want to learn more?

Watch ‘Thinking in Circles: Canberra’s Circular Economy Forum’, which took place on 16 June.


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