The Hunter is the largest economy in regional NSW contributing over $34.7 billion to the NSW economy
The Hunter and Central Coast region is also one of the fastest-growing regional economies in Australia, with the largest share of regional population and regional employment in NSW
Currently the region's economy is highly dependent on mining and power generation with approximately 80% of the state's electricity generated here
Some of the most exciting circular economy action globally is coming out of cities. Kate Raworth's theory of doughnut economics has been embedded in Amsterdam's public policy making, Rotterdam has set the goal of reducing raw material use by 50 per cent by 2030 and the city of Peterborough in the United Kingdom wants to be fully circular by 2030.
But in Australia, it is regional areas that are leading the charge. The Hunter and Central Coast area — a large stretch of land along Australia's east coast home to almost a million people — is on a mission to become Australia's leading circular economy region.
Looking at the diverse region on a map, you can trace a large circle from Lake Macquarie in the south to Crowdy Bay National Park in the north that arches west to capture Singleton, Muswellbrook and Dungog. Inside the circle is some of Australia's most iconic coastline, large expanses of agricultural land, small rural towns and thriving industry hubs.
The Hunter Joint Organisation (Hunter JO), a collective of ten councils inside the circle, is working with the state government's Sustainability Advantage organisation, Central Coast Council and local industry leaders to bring circular economy to the region. The group has already completed a number of impressive CE projects including a material flow analysis and an ecosystem mapping exercise, and they have big plans for the year ahead.
We sat down with Hunter JO's Regional Policy and Program Manager Tim Askew, Sustainability Advantage's Senior Project Officer Jonathan Wood and Lake Macquarie Council's Circular Economy Lead Debbie O'Byrne to discuss how they are collaborating to build a better future for the Hunter and Central Coast region.
The Hunter JO is a network of councils that identifies and advocates for strategic priorities in the Hunter and Central Coast region. Its member councils are Cessnock City Council, Dungog Shire Council, Lake Macquarie City Council (LMCC), Maitland City Council, MidCoast Council, Muswellbrook Shire Council, Newcastle City Council, Port Stephens Council, Singleton Council and Upper Hunter Shire Council.
Founded on the principle of collaboration, the Hunter JO acts as a unified voice for its members and works with other levels of government, industry and the community to activate change in the region.
"We make sure that the people that make decisions understand what circular economy is," summarises Tim Askew, Regional Policy and Program Manager at Hunter JO.
Hunter JO's council network is critical to its success. The organisation harnesses the knowledge and skills of its council members and shares resources openly across the group to find shared interests and ensure work isn't duplicated.
One of the most active council members of the Hunter JO is Lake Macquarie, or Lake Mac for short, a council that appointed its own Circular Economy Lead in 2020. Debbie O'Byrne took on that job and has already developed a circular economy policy and framework for Council, making Lake Mac the first Local Government Area in Australia with a standalone circular economy policy.
"One of the biggest benefits regionally and certainly for Lake Mac is we have the luxury of a fully dedicated circular economy lead role," Debbie explains.
"I don't do circular economy as part of my waste job. I don't do it as part of my sustainability job. This is my job, it's my only job. I not only have the commitment from LMCC to that role, but I also have a budget."
This has enabled Debbie to develop resources like the policy and framework that act as catalysts to support change in other councils who may not have the same dedicated resource. Hunter JO provides an opportunity to pool resources, both financial and intellectual, with others striving for the same goal.
"We collaborate on lots of projects financially as well as through the brains trust that we're building," Debbie says. "A circular economy does not only happen inside of Council. There is a strong need to make sure that we are connected on regional and state scales."
Intergovernmental collaboration is an important aspect of Hunter JO's work. The group works closely with Sustainability Advantage, the NSW Government's flagship business support program to accelerate sustainability action, to create a line of communication between local and state government.
Jonathan Wood, Senior Project Officer at Sustainability Advantage, is part of Hunter JO's 'facilitators group' — a core group of representatives from all levels of government and local businesses that meets regularly to drive the region's transition.
Everyone talks about collaboration, but I feel like not many groups are very good at it, particularly when it involves numerous organisations from a range of sectors. But this is one of the rare examples where collaboration amongst a large number of varied stakeholders is actually working, which is fantastic to be a part of, Jonathan says.
When we meet, Tim, Debbie and Jonathan have just come out of another meeting about the Strategic Roadmap Hunter JO is currently developing. When asked what the ultimate goal of this project is, Tim responds with the official vision statement they have just agreed on: "To create Australia's leading regional circular economy — a thriving place for people, planet and the economy."
When you consider both the impacts of climate change and the reliance on fossil fuels in regional Australia, it is easy to understand why these areas are leading the transition to a circular economy.
"We're at the pointy end of the transition to a post-coal economy, that's a big driver for us," Debbie explains.
"This has been a very successful region through its mining, particularly with coal, and the investment in port infrastructure so there's highly skilled technical jobs in this area and we don't want to lose them if these industries are sunset industries, which clearly the coal industry is," Debbie adds.
"We also have the largest power plant in Australia that creates energy for the region. We've got a lot of infrastructure assets and we don't want them abandoned. What other ways can we recreate a future of the off the back of that knowledge, skills, expertise?"
With a focus on innovation and job-creation, the circular economy has the potential to build a new future for the region and its residents.
"The region has always wanted to create more diversity of employment and reverse the brain drain that happens when people leave for university or work in their 20s," Tim says.
Hunter JO's role is to connect the stakeholders who can make this transition happen, empower them with the knowledge and resources they need and provide guidance to help them maximise the opportunity.
Jonathan believes the multiple benefits of a circular economy make it an easy sell for businesses and the community.
"One of the reasons why it's getting such good traction is everyone can see themselves in the future that it's trying to create," he explains.
Sustainability Advantage (SA) and the Hunter JO identified circular economy as a key strategic priority as early as 2015 and they have worked on a number of major circular economy projects since. Below is a timeline of their activates to date:
2018 — SA hosted the Hunter Circular Lab forum, an event that introduced 80 industry, community and government participants to the concept of circular economy.
2019 — conducted a material flows analysis for the region that mapped 21 waste streams to identify opportunities for innovation and investment.
2020 — conducted an ecosystem mapping exercise to highlight businesses and local government groups taking action in the circular economy. The findings were published in the Hunter Central Coast Ecosystem Report and used to develop the Hunter Circular website, a database of circular projects in the region.
2020 — formed the facilitators group of which Tim, Debbie and Jonathan are all members.
2021 — launched the CE Think Tank event at the Hunter Innovation Festival. This was built off the back of a Circular City Scan they have underway with Circle Economy in the Netherlands, an event where 120 local businesses, community leaders and representatives from all levels of government met to discuss opportunities and plan actions.
We asked Tim, Debbie and Jonathan to reflect on their key learnings from this process and these are the valuable pieces of advice they had for others interested in transitioning their region, business or community.
Systemic change requires collaboration on every level, from the macro level of nations right down to the micro level of the person sitting at the desk next to you. The Hunter JO group emphasise the need, within government departments in particular, to break out of a siloed style of working that focuses on individual goals.
"This happens in large organisations, state and local government all the time, where physically adjacent teams don't even talk to each other," Jonathan admits.
But he says the solution is simple: talk to each other, practice active listening and be respectful of one-another's needs. Setting a shared group objective and creating a safe space to communicate in are also conducive to successful collaborative working.
"We've engaged really well with the decision makers, the general managers, the mayors. I spent a lot of time working with them, helping them to understand what the circular economy is and that allows us to keep delivering and experimenting," Tim says.
He gives the example of waste teams, who have been crucial to engage because the majority of circular economy funding is currently tied to waste. Hunter JO has carefully involved these groups, taking time to explain the concept of circular economy and outline its benefits for them. This has allowed them to obtain funding to get projects like the CE Strategic Roadmap and CE Procurement Program for local government off the ground.
Circular economy work happens at the boundaries, the boundaries between departments, between various levels of government, between an organisation and industry, industry and the community. That's the messy space that we operate in, Debbie says.
"I think we're comfortable with messy. We don't make being perfect the enemy of good enough to get out and give it a go. We have a more of a start-up mindset — let's just try it, it might work, it might not work but we’ll learn something along the way that can be applied to the next iteration."
"I think we tend to be systems thinkers," she adds.
"So not optimising what's best for us as an individual or an organisation, but what is best for the region and how we each play our part to bring that to fruition."
Hunter JO and Sustainability Advantage identified the key stakeholders that will drive the transition in their region and invited them to participate in its core decision-making group.
"We almost see ourselves as the enabling core trying to engage the broader ecosystem," Tim says.
The core group is comprised of people with their hands on the levers of power — government representatives, business associations, large employers and large not-for-profits. The broader ecosystem is pretty much everybody else — businesses, small not-for-profits, academia and community members.
In addition to helping the Hunter JO develop its roadmap, the core group develops and finances other projects that are then opened up to the wider community such as the Think Tank days the group will run this year.
"We're trying to engage with the biggest bang for buck, so we're really targeting the inner core, which is the associations that can leverage their own databases," Tim explains.
Education is critical in the circular economy space. The first thing Debbie did when she started in her role at Lake Macquarie council was put the executive team through a circular economy leadership training program. This training has also been offered to interested parties in the wider Hunter JO group and most projects the group administers require some level of CE education.
"There was basic training involved as part of the strategy piece and the think tank because we're still very heavily in the space of 'circular economy is recycling'," Jonathan says.
In addition to generalised education, there is also a need for more specialised training that is tailored to the needs of specific groups. Debbie is looking into accredited training programs for designers and engineers that will enable them to design circular buildings and infrastructure. She has also just delivered a Circular Classroom workshop for high school students at a local Big Picture Education school.
"We are socialising what the need is and then we're very likely to do some work with the uni and TAFE around what classes need to look like to create jobs for the circular economy," she says.
"And people will say, 'well, as a council, why do you care about that?'. There are a few different reasons. Number one, we want to be laying roads and building assets with different materials and creating jobs in our region, so where's the workforce and are they trained?"
Lake Macquarie Council is currently exploring the possibility of developing a technical advisory group for the region that would offer expert guidance to councils on projects like laying new roads or designing modular buildings.
In order to come up with effective solutions, you need a good understanding of the system you are operating in. The material flows analysis and ecosystem mapping exercises undertaken previously allowed the group to establish a baseline understanding of opportunities in the region. The group is now looking to build on the findings of the material flows analysis, which mostly focused on waste, using the City Scan Tool.
Developed by Circle Economy in the Netherlands, City Scan is designed for local governments to identify the sectors and materials that have the most impact in their region. The exercise will help capture data gaps and go beyond waste to quantify the benefits of a circular economy for things like water, energy and fly ash (of which there is 40 million tonnes in the Hunter region).
"Data is absolutely central to solving lots of global problems and it is a fundamental building block of enabling circular solutions and business models," Debbie says.
"The linear economy has had hundreds of years to build its data sets and we're starting from scratch."
The group plans to publish the findings of the City Scan in an open-source forum where other councils can use it to generate insights for their own projects. Eventually, the group plan to develop a 'living lab' where participants can learn from and contribute to projects like this.
"Where I see everything ending up in the longer term is in an innovation hub living lab, so that we've got somewhere for all of these projects to be experimented on and developed," Tim explains.
The group is committed to an open and collaborative style of working where data is shared to avoid duplication and maximise the value of resources. The City Scan project is an excellent example of a local project harnessing the circular economy work already being undertaken elsewhere.
"I'm a firm believer in not reinventing the wheel. If somebody has done something really well, let's learn from it," Debbie says.
"It doesn't make any sense to be starting from scratch when we know that the EU is streets ahead. We went to Finland for their education piece, we went to Circle Economy for the City Scan, we went to Peterborough for the framework. So don't reinvent the wheel, there's loads of resources out there. Pick what you need and focus on what's important to your individual region."
In addition to seeking out resources from overseas, she urges other councils to use the policy and framework Lake Mac has developed and adapt it to their own needs. This is available here.
When Hunter JO and Sustainability Advantage first got together there was little to no knowledge of the circular economy in the Hunter and Central Coast region. Now, the region has a thriving business, government and community network and a waiting list of groups that are keen to get on board with Hunter JO's work.
"I think the big benefit has been the momentum we've been able to create in a year and a half. People are now banging down the door asking how they can get involved," Debbie says.
"With the tiny amount of money we've got compared to the billions thrown at this in the EU, we've actually achieved a lot in our region in a short period of time."
The collaboration alone is a major achievement for the group because it can be leveraged to set up initiatives like the City Scan and the Think Tank. All of this work builds the momentum required to push the region's transition forward.
"Don't reinvent the wheel. If somebody has done a good job, piggyback off it, we don't have time to be re-litigating this from scratch. We'll make all of the tools we're building open access so other councils who don't have the luxury of a budget can still benefit from that work" — Debbie.
"Planet Ark will be familiar with the adage 'it only takes five committed people to change the world'. So go out there and find your other four committed, aligned people and you can make incredible things happen" — Jonathan.
"Find champions in the region early on, get that buy-in at the top and truly collaborate" — Tim.
Learn more about the Hunter JO's circular economy program here.