Biodiversity and Circular Economy Water Industry Discussion

Biodiversity and the Circular Economy

What can we learn about the intersection between biodiversity and the circular economy? That was the question that kicked off our webinar on this topic.

GHD Digital’s AquaLAB hosted about 60 of our water industry peers online to tackle a rare conversation in the water industry. One of AquaLAB’s roles is to explore new and novel topics and connect the water industry around new and novel ideas and topics to open up opportunities for everyone to learn from each other.

Saskya shared the importance of bringing the industry together to have conversations about the future of the circular economy. She mentioned a recent report and draft action plan from WSAA outlining what needs to change and what challenges the water industry faces in terms of addressing these issues.

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Hosted by Saskya Hunter, AquaLAB Director (GHD Digital) and Lindsey Brown, Victorian Water Market Leader (GHD), the discussion featured perspectives from four organisations:

  • Alice Greenhill, Sustainability Manager from Yarra Valley Water (Melbourne, Victoria),
  • Gary Love, Chief Opportunity Officer — Environmental & Industrial Group from Urban Utilities (Southeast Qld),
  • Olivia Philpott, Sustainability Lead, from Watercare Services Limited (Auckland, New Zealand), and
  • Audra Liubinas, Principal Sustainability Engineer, from Mott MacDonald (Melbourne, Victoria).

Key Themes around Biodiversity and Circular Economy

Some key takeaways from the event were:

  • Utilities are looking at how they can go beyond sustainability, beyond zero carbon goals, beyond their asset borders and beyond just the basics in addressing SDGs. However, measuring impacts and initiative progress is a challenge.
  • Policy change is needed to drive real industry change. The regulatory and policy environment does not support sustainable practices like potable water recycling and a number of other circular economy initiatives.
  • Partnerships will be key for utilities to achieve their circular economy goals. They will achieve better outcomes with multiple partners who can help them balance their priorities, stakeholders and funding needs.
  • The triple bottom line is important to utilities and regulators but sometimes it is more talk than action due to the regulatory and BAU environment. The utility culture also doesn’t always promote progress.
  • The community’s push for biodiversity may drive industry change more than science.

Beyond sustainability

Each of the panelists expressed that their organisations had progressive climate change and sustainability targets and aspirations to achieve within the next ten years.

Alice Greenhill Sustainability Manager from Yarra Valley Water shared that after doing a study with Lifecycles, Yarra Valley Water looked for the low hanging fruit in where and how they could make a material difference. The utility has looked at things like what materials they use, procurement, and recycled water.

They considered their land holdings and assets and looked at where they could partner with other organisations to regenerate ecosystems, such as being on the steering committee for Melbourne’s green city initiative, Living Melbourne.

Urban Utilities have been taking on the circular economy challenge for the past three years as part of their ten year aspiration plan.

Gary Love, Chief Opportunity Officer — Environmental & Industrial Group said this has manifested in three key ways:

  • Recognising circularity of water, looking at water recycling at multiple scales, and diversification of traditional catchment-to-sea models.
  • Transforming resource recovery: looking at expanding co-digestion pathways and actively commercialising liquid co-digestion. Also looking beyond nutrient removal to nutrient recovery.
  • Recognising Urban Utilities’ role in contaminant removal from circular pathways.

Urban Utilities is establishing a Centre of Excellence for Contamination Science to address issues around PFAS, pharmaceutical by products and microplastics in the water systems, saying that the current systems were not designed to remove these contaminants.

Olivia Philpott, Sustainability Lead, from Watercare Services Limited, shared that Watercare’s sustainability mandate drives many of their strategic initiatives as they work to achieve the country’s climate change targets. These include:

  • Revegetating dam catchments. Watercare took back guardianship of a major catchment and have planted 500,000 trees that were eco-sourced locally.
  • Making their current wastewater treatment plant more energy efficient with 58% of the energy generated by biogas.
  • Using biosolids to regenerate cultural sites and recycling wastewater.
  • Doing a recycled potable water pilot.

Audra Liubinas, Principal Sustainability Engineer, from Mott MacDonald said that the SDGs were embedded into Mott MacDonald’s operations so they could walk their talk. The consultancy is certified carbon neutral and they’ve noticed an uptick in utilities and regulators tuning in to the triple bottom line.

Challenges to change

Alice said that key challenges are around funding and changing the way utilities work. Upskilling and leadership are needed to shift the culture. In terms of biodiversity, the key question is: How do we unlock funding for biodiversity?

Gary said that there needs to be a big shift around the metrics of value. Urban Utilities is very much driven by economics in the long term and measuring impacts and measuring other drivers is a key challenge.

He articulated that change will only come when policies and regulation really take on the triple bottom line. At the moment, it’s all about cost for the consumer.

Olivia said that one of the key challenges to making progress around circular economy initiatives is the legislative framework in New Zealand. She said the framework does not allow for potable wastewater reuse, let alone the challenge of bringing the community onboard to accept the idea. The ‘yuck factor’ is still very much in front of them but there is hope the drought will serve to educate the community that water is not an unlimited resource in New Zealand as they perhaps once believed.

Another challenge is when different perspectives don’t align between the various community and interest groups.

Audra said that standards and frameworks need to change in order to allow for recycled material use across the board. Although she added that the water industry has shown leadership in this regard.

Questions around biodiversity and the circular economy

Lindsey Brown then presented attendees’ questions to the panel. Questions centered around the connection between biodiversity and the circular economy in practice at utilities, how to measure progress, where are the boundaries for measuring results — the assets themselves on the entire ecosystem around them? Other questions included: Is circular economy just for large, well-funded utilities or is it for everyone? What would policy done right look like and are we thinking long-term enough?

Watch the discussion and Q&As here.

Our panelists articulated that regenerative practice is something utilities are getting better at, that change may very well be driven by citizens over science and that the regulatory environment needs to shift in order to pave the way for future initiatives. They agreed that the larger utilities have a leadership role to play in the industry and that a more community-based holistic approach is needed to align perspectives, not just an asset-centric approach.

The future of circular economy will might look a little different for everyone, depending on the local circumstances, but shifts in the regulatory environment and greater collaboration and sharing of learnings are going to be key. While not explicitly discussed, the ongoing digital transformation of water utilities will also be a critical enabler.

Watch the discussion and Q&As here.

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