Can Australia really embrace the necessary structural reform we need and move beyond our current linear BAU approach, to tackle the symptoms of over-production and over-consumption?  Or will we simply continue to focus lower down the hierarchy and hope we can keep recycling our way to 2030? This is a key conversation that I strongly feel Australia needs to have and will be one that will be explored at WMRR’s circular economy conference ENVIRO in Brisbane in June.

In 2005 the Australia Institute wrote that “Australians seem to live with a contradiction. They express concern about the environment yet live materialistic lifestyles that result in high levels of waste.”

This statement is still as true today as it was in 2005. We love to consume.  Look at clothing, where on average we buy 56 pieces a year!

One (1) year after this report was published, Australia generated just under 44 million tonnes of waste or a tick over two (2) tonnes per person. By 2021 this was just under 76 million tonnes or nearly three (3) tonnes per person.  We remain one of the highest generators of waste per capita globally.

This rise is driven arguably by consumption. Consumption for me, is the real elephant in the room when it comes to creating a circular economy, as to date we really have been silent on it and its impacts on the planet and achieving all the 2030 targets.

In 2018 we did commit nationally to reduce waste generated by 10% per capita by 2030. Regrettably we have done little to really address this, with generation continuing to increase meaning, we now need to reduce the amount of waste generated by 18% per capita to achieve the target.

So far, we have not joined the dots between the materials and products we consume, how we consume and how we manage it through its life cycle.  Other nations are ahead of us, making the links between consumption, carbon and biodiversity even!  You may have even noticed the COP 27 and COP 28 focused heavily on this link, arguably given some 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of global biodiversity loss and water stress is caused by resource extraction and processing.

Those of us in the WARR industry could recite in our sleep the waste management hierarchy. At the top is avoidance which is the very best thing we can do for the planet. We need to start a national conversation about how to manage consumption right now, if we are genuine about both reducing our draw down on the natural environment and reducing waste generated including carbon.  For example, each household throws out 1 in 5 bags of groceries per week - that's both a lot of consumption and a lot of waste generation and a huge amount of carbon!

WMRR has argued for years that as well as the current work on investment and infrastructure, we need to lift our gaze and look further up the hierarchy, towards (amongst other things) a national comprehensive behavioural change campaign that empowers consumers. One that focuses on resource efficiency, extending lifespan, and really starts to draw the links between consumption, waste creation, carbon and biodiversity management.  There is strong inspiration to draw upon globally, such as the WRAP UK: Net Zero Why Resource Efficiency Holds Answers campaign.   What better time to tackle consumption than when we are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis? Australia has done this well before - does anyone else remember Norm and “Life Be in It”?

Focusing behavioural campaigns on avoidance and consumption (as opposed to what goes in which bins) to look at what we buy and whether we need it, gives us a real chance to have an impact on extending lifespan, reducing waste generation and even preferencing Australian products made from Australian recycled materials, including explaining why we should!

Thinking differently about lifecycle and consumption, also means we can create opportunities for new business models, such as sharing and re-use, to replace more traditional linear ownership models. For example, in Scotland consideration is being given to banning the disposal of unused goods and incentivising the return of used products for refurbishment or resale. In France, a ‘right to repair’ exists for some electronic/electrical items (like smartphones, televisions and washing machines) and clothing.

This does not mean we are losing economic prosperity by pivoting away from retail sales - rather it means we are adapting business models and saving money, as well as reducing emissions and the strain on the planet’s resources.

A Monash University study released last year found 51% of Australian shoppers say sustainability is an important factor when making a retail purchase. How many people really think – can I darn those socks, or do I just buy a new pair? Can that toaster be fixed, or do I just buy a new one? Is it driving behaviour change?  The United Nations’ E-waste monitor in March 2024 warned electronic waste is growing five (5) times larger than e-waste recycling. This is truly alarming.

And this is where government and business need to work together to make it easier for consumers to make better, more informed choices. I’m sure the 51% of people mentioned above do really want to do the right thing, but in many cases it’s simply not easy.

Without a ‘right to repair’ here in Australia, buying a new toaster can be cheaper than getting it repaired, especially if you’ve got to drive halfway across town to the repair shop or spend a fortune on postage. Online shopping has made purchases so easy you don’t even have to get off the lounge or out of bed.

As the Zero Waste Scotland Circular Economy and Waste Route Map to 2030 states we need to be “challenging the current approach to consumption and production by mainstreaming reuse and repair and incentivising and promoting sustainable choices.” It even argues rather than just setting waste reduction targets, consideration should be given to setting consumption reduction targets. Have we seen anything like this policy courage yet in Australia?  Nope we are too busy thinking that if we regulate recycled products, we are creating the mythical circular economy by enabling them to circulate, when no such regulation exists on virgin products.

The WARR sector is the end of the line. We deal with what we receive in the best and most environmentally sustainable manner possible, and we are very good at it! However, we urgently need to lift our gaze and focus on how products are designed and consumed.   

See you in Brisbane at ENVIRO!