Meet Debbie O'Byrne

“I hear the clock ticking to 2030 and the point of no return.”

“On the 19th of April, New Zealand will reach what’s known as overshoot day,” says Beca Circular Economy Principal, Debbie O’Byrne. “That’s the day of the year where we’ve used more of the earth’s resources than is sustainable, and we start borrowing future resources from generations who haven’t even been born yet. Now, more than ever, every day has to count. We have to start turning that clock back.”

For nearly a decade, Debbie has been working with a range of organisations to integrate Circular Economy (CE) principles and implement systems change. “I’ve been passionate about the environment for a very, very long time,” she says. “My early background was in social work and supporting disaffected communities, but there came a point when I realised that, as much as I could give to those communities, it just wasn’t going to be enough in the grand scheme of us destroying the planet at an incredible pace.”

Debbie began growing her own background knowledge and enrolled in an MBA at Massey University in 2013. “People sometimes wonder how my environmental passion translated into an MBA. The fact is that this is not an environmental science problem. This is a business and human behaviour problem. I needed to be able to speak the language of the business world in order to understand what the barriers are. For my thesis, I originally began with a gap analysis to see how New Zealand was tracking in terms of circular economies, but quickly realised that the gap was so big that it didn’t help to try and quantify it. At that time, you couldn’t really see any momentum here yet at all. So I pivoted to demonstrate the significant global momentum behind this paradigm shift which we are now seeing take shape in NZ, much slower than I would have liked but the pace is picking up.”

In search of a dedicated CE role, Debbie headed to Australia in 2020 to become CE Lead for Lake Macquarie City Council. “I did not have a lot of experience in local government, but my team helped me to navigate the change. I received great support including a generous budget and I loved the culture that allowed me to explore and stretch their thinking. We worked on a lot of interesting projects – many of them firsts in Australia – including a circular scan, comparisons for using recycled materials in roads, a hackathon and a circular classroom event. Our strategy was simply to do a lot of stuff, while also tackling the brain work, the policy and the strategy in parallel. And we ensured that all of our learnings were widely shared. A small and temporary competitive advantage is not the right battle to fight; it doesn’t help us answer the questions our grand kids are going to ask about the world we’ve left them.”

Debbie remains involved with Australia’s Circular Economy Hub but has since brought her skills back to New Zealand at engineering and advisory consultancy Beca. “One of the things we’ve been focused on is expanding the three main principles of CE thinking – design out waste, cycle materials to keep them in use and regenerate natural systems – into a more holistic Circular Design Framework to also include the integration of indigenous perspectives, the creation of socio-economic benefits and increasing resilience and adaptation,” she says. “Behind these 6 ideas sits a set of prompt questions for each element; we’re now using this framework with organisations to stretch their thinking and decision-making. As a multi-disciplinary organization, Beca has the ability to have a significant positive impact in the work it does every day using circular principles.”

Debbie’s drive to create positive impact was embedded early, she says, during her childhood in a low socio-economic period in Dublin. “It was economically really tough in Ireland back then, and we grew up similarly to others at that time. We didn’t have many luxuries, but we were happy. We had a good life and good neighbours, with plenty of freedom. I guess I always felt the value of things independent from their dollar value.

“On the 19th of April, New Zealand will reach what’s known as overshoot day,” says Beca Circular Economy Principal, Debbie O’Byrne. “That’s the day of the year where we’ve used more of the earth’s resources than is sustainable, and we start borrowing future resources from generations who haven’t even been born yet. Now, more than ever, every day has to count. We have to start turning that clock back.”

“There’s a specific memory that sticks in my mind of my Dad coming home from work one day with a guy we’d never met before. He sat down to dinner with us, laughed and joked and I think he even stayed the night. It wasn’t until later that I found out that he was actually a homeless man who my Dad had brought home because he had nothing to eat and nowhere to go. We didn’t have a lot, but we still had something to give. I’ve only recently realised that was a defining moment where this whole journey started for me – first working with disadvantaged youth and marginalised communities, and now in CE.”

The next big leap in Debbie’s journey begins soon, as she starts to split her time between Beca and a new role as Co-Founder of start-up, Planet Price. “I was part of a group that ran the first Pacific Indigenous Circular Economy Summit in Rotorua a few years back; it was through some of the delegate connections that I was introduced to Planet Price Founder, Andy Hill.” Like Debbie, Andy had also returned to study at Cambridge where his thesis focused on getting to the heart of what are known as ‘Scope 3’ emissions. “Everyone largely knows how to do Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which are your energy expended and your energy purchased. Scope 3 covers everything else, from your supply chain to your consumables, but they are difficult to quantify, so many simply don’t or muddle through as best they can. What really blew me away about Andy’s work was that he was looking at impacts beyond carbon. Yes, carbon is our most urgent challenge, but it is, by no means, the only one. I lose sleep over issues like soil and biodiversity loss, and I am interested in the 9 planetary boundaries.”

Debbie began beta testing the Planet Price platform with Andy while she was still in Australia and found a lot of synergies between the problems she was identifying and the solutions they were providing. “Lake Macquarie Council partnered with Planet Price and gained access to a heat map generated from its procurement data which clearly demonstrated planetary cost. This tool is designed to be used in organisations – big and small – to calculate the actual planet price of their procurement impacts. Of course, I believe that everything in nature has its own intrinsic value irrespective of a financial value but using that approach to conservation simply hasn’t been working. We need to get into board rooms and start balancing the risk/opportunity question a bit better. It would be great to see the New Zealand government look to other models globally where many countries set up a coherent and connected inter-agency task force to support the transition to a circular economy. This is a paradigm shift that fundamentally changes the linear concepts and language of business and the economy that have been in place for hundreds of years. We need to catch up with our global peers. It’s time to start asking different questions.”

There will be a busy few months ahead as Debbie works to balance her work with BECA and her new role with Planet Price, but she’s excited about the incredible potential of both opportunities. “I’ll be going to Helsinki next month for the World Circular Economy Forum with my BECA colleague [Technical Director – Civil Engineer], Tania Hyde, which is a really big deal. This will also tie in with a number of other site visits which I will use to further explore the thinking around the opportunity that something like Planet Price could have. My hope is to look back in a couple of years and think this moment was the inflection point. I want to be in the Koru Lounge some day and overhear someone saying: ‘Sorry, the planet price around that decision just isn’t good enough.’”

To learn more and connect with Debbie, visit BECA’s website at and Planet Price at, follow Debbie on LinkedIn and check out her recent Teulo Talk. If you’re in Tauranga, you can also join her in person at the upcoming Circular Economy Meetup.

Bex De Prospo
Bex De Prospo