Comment: The state of the climate, resource depletion and degradation of nature requires immediate action, and this need could be met by moving our model of production and consumption to a circular economy.

A circular economy is characterised by designing waste out of the system, the highly efficient use of resources, and a continuous recirculation of post-consumer materials, while drawing from renewable energy. It is a strategy that addresses not only waste and pollution but also long-term resource security and price volatility.

It provides a new model for sustaining human wellbeing within planetary boundaries and provides opportunities to improve competitiveness and economic resilience.

Contrast these characteristics with the traditional system we currently operate, the so-called ‘linear economy’ where more than 90 percent of materials extracted for the global economy are used only once, and then thrown away. Economically valuable materials are disposed of while pressing environmental challenges are created.

These facts are drivers for the need to transition towards a circular economy which would offer great challenges and tremendous opportunities to develop clean innovations based on values and systems that relate to Aotearoa New Zealand, that involve Māori and encompass Te Tiriti.

Transitioning towards such a system requires making conscious choices and changing how we design, manufacture, sell, consume, use, and manage materials, products and services. At the same time, it requires innovative technologies, products, strategies, and approaches to achieve sustainability and generate economic prosperity.

Achieving a circular economy requires the efforts of all members of society. Universities are particularly well-placed to contribute to the creation of a sustainable future through research and teaching. We are at the forefront of these activities which means we generate new knowledge and innovations that provide solutions to interconnected social, economic and environmental challenges. We must combine efforts from different groups to catalyse the scientific and technological expertise of universities, industry and government agencies.

The Circular Economy: Achieving deep sustainability by learning how to unmake everything we make.  Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The circular economy requires new skills and mindsets. Without adequate education and training programmes in place, these skills would be unavailable to industry and communities. It is crucial for universities to educate a new generation of graduates who can bring circularity and sustainability mindsets to this space. There is urgent demand from industry seeking skill-development in circular economy, waste minimisation and resource recovery technologies. From a university perspective, our response to this need from industry has the added benefit of preparing our graduates for the challenges of resource limitation, an area of increasing focus for New Zealand and international industries.

In-depth research is required to support uptake of this new model and overcome the barriers to circular economy ideas and implementation. Focusing on fundamental research and basic sciences, as the bedrock of advancement, will lead us to applied solutions.

The circular economy will require the tapping of transformative digital, engineering and biological technologies to enable cleaner and more efficient extraction, production and waste management. Some of the technology required is still underdeveloped or unproven. Applied scientific research will help to upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors, facilitate sustainable and resilient infrastructure development and support domestic technology development. These innovative applied solutions can be advanced in all sectors of the economy: from traditional resource sectors to manufacturing to services.

For the circular economy to flourish, a change in mindset is needed in every segment of society, from government to business and consumers. Economic and organisational innovations create new methods and management systems that support closing the loops and increasing resource efficiency.

As we move toward a circular economy in Aotearoa New Zealand, we must ensure that our systems are based on values, ideas, and knowledge of all New Zealanders – our inequality and climate change challenges will not be overcome without ensuring that.

Transformational changes required are more likely to succeed if there is a strong role for Māori that is consistent with Te Tiriti. The wellbeing of the environment and people are embedded in the Māori cultural mindset. This acknowledges that much can be achieved if we work closely with Māori researchers, communities and businesses in a way that respects rangatiratanga (the right for Māori to make decisions for Māori) and aligns with Te Ao Māori, Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), and kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection).

And further, investing in innovation and technological solutions for circularity, in a way that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, supports or creates the jobs, communities, businesses and markets that contribute to solving New Zealand’s intergenerational challenges.

Associate Professor Saeid Baroutian is from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Auckland.

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