2023 is our time to shine

With 2023 only weeks away, I really am optimistic that next year will be our year. Surely 2023 will be the year that “s#it will get real” for industry, business, government, and the community if we are serious about meeting Australia’s 2030 targets of 43% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 and the 80% average recovery of materials. 2022 was good but 2023 must be better as we have both time and behavior against us.

We saw a lot of action in 2022. Not only did the new Federal government move quickly to set a stronger ambition for net zero, but we also saw our new Federal Environment Minister along with state Environment Ministers support the move towards a circular economy, with an emphasis, finally, on design and market development.

With the Circularity Gap report stating that only 8% of global materials are circular and over 70% of global emissions stem from material management, the recent Federal directions are necessary, and the targets set non- negotiable. However, the release of the most recent National Waste Data Report last week was a start reminder we are miles away from where we need to be. We really need real action and real outcomes urgently.

When we consider Australia’s WARR journey, we could say that 2018 was the year our industry landed hard in the public conscience. We came under the spotlight through War on Waste (by the way, season three is now in production – you heard it hear first!) and Trashed, and shortly after came China’s National Sword. Oh the ‘shock’ and ‘horror’ when it dawned on people that Australia, as both a net importer of products and with a diminishing manufacturing sector, was exporting valuable secondary raw material commodities offshore to be re-manufactured back into the global supply chain.

The penny may have dropped but five (5) years on, but we continue to consume too much, with an overwhelming proportion of products still being made from virgin material. This is despite numerous conversations, the most recent at this year’s COP27, on the need to manage consumption and production. Yet even today, Australia continues to focus on retail sales as an indicator of success so, it is unsurprising (but depressing) that we hit Earth Overshoot Day on 23 March (28 July globally), coming in behind the USA, Canada, and UAE. This is NOT a race we want to win.

On a positive note, we do have a National Waste Action Plan but that is where that positivity ends. We can all agree that it is not a particularly good document (the title says it all). To be fair, the document, which is up for review thankfully, was written at a time by an agency that did not understand the value and role of our industry or the system within which we operate (let alone the national economy and the complexity that we face).

The result is that despite having significant data at a federal level, there has been no real consideration of how to meet our targets or actions informed by the evidence and data we have available. What we have is a list of actions that have not closed the gap to meet the goals set. Instead, what we have seen is well-intentioned but not well thought through export ban, a lack of market and infrastructure emphasis or coordination, radio silence on the federal and state/territory regulatory settings we operate by and no mention of carbon, let alone prioritizing actions that would make the greatest impact. It is a very linear document that in many ways continues to entrench business-as-usual. As a result, we have stagnated at 60% recovery for a number of years now- essentially because a lot of the ‘easier’ stuff has been done.

The National Waste Data report should serve as a very sobering wakeup call. It tells us that even with a plan, we are still not on the path! To get to where we must go, we need to bring on two (2) million additional tonnes of demand for recycled products and material every year from now until 2030, which means another 14 million tonnes of recovery infrastructure alone. That’s not to mention the design, behavior, and regulatory change needed to support this. It is going to be a mammoth task but one we must undertake.

So, in 2023, as we strengthen the National Waste Action Plan, we must capture the missing part of the supply chain that has a role in designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials in use, and fostering markets to achieve a circular economy by 2030. For the WARR sector to continue to grow, we need real and substantive action to make a significant impact on the five (5) key material streams that emit the most emissions - plastic, food, textiles, construction, and transportation. We need meaty strategies that cover all aspects of the 2.6 million tonnes of plastic and 14.4 million tonnes of organics we generate. These strategies need to also operate nationally, with a focus on the 10Rs that must be supported at end of life by a systemic approach to the waste management hierarchy and associated infrastructure, including energy recovery.

For our industry, there must be an understanding that we are no different to any other business in that we need to be environmentally and economically sustainable. Continuing to operate in a highly regulated environment that remains focused on linear low-cost outcomes means we cannot achieve greater outcomes.

A shift in perception about the material we process – high value material, not waste – could lead to a much different approach to WARR. Thus, we need policies that support this shift, funding to bolster circular models, and regulation that enables an end-to-end approach to material management. In other words, the policy and regulatory levers that would design out waste and pollution to enable access to higher quality raw materials, coordinated and clear infrastructure and licensing planning to ensure that we can access, sort, and remanufacture materials in a consolidated, certain, and cost-competitive manner (e.g., through co-location), and clear and certain regulatory pathways that will keep materials in circulation. A great place to start is an agreed national definition of waste, and no, that is not the NSW definition.

And finally, we need real demand. The reality is, if you insist on using material in the market, you need to fund its lifecycle and ensure it goes back into the productive economy, ideally to the highest and best use.

The 2023 wish list is long, but I am going to add one more thing. Leadership. Yes, from our governments but also from our industry. We continue to grow and innovate so let’s showcase our work and find ways to do even better, for example, building and then showcasing our facilities made from recycled materials, reusing our materials on share platforms, furnishing our offices with re-purposed or secondhand furniture… We are already making a difference, let’s show the rest of Australia how.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year all. I genuinely hope you have a restful time with those you love, as I have no doubt 2023 is going to be a huge year for us all!