Going circular requires integration, not isolation

The circular economy debate has intensified over the last few years, with governments – both state/territory and federal – attempting to develop policies and regulatory frameworks that lead Australia towards a circular economy. These efforts are fantastic and so is the commitment to the cause, and I am certainly encouraged by our new federal government’s keen focus on building a greener Australia; however, I think there is a lot more we can do quicker to move Australia along a path to a circular economy, one that our essential sector plays a vital role in supporting.

Globally, we are living in challenging times and not just because of the pandemic. Australia is learning post-China National Sword that we need to manage and control our own resources (that means manufacturing onshore and not just for virgin resources), we need reliable sources of fuel and energy (which includes renewables and what our sector can produce) and that material and carbon are simply two sides of the one coin. So, how do we turn these factors to our advantage now that the climate war is possibly over in Australian politics and build a circular economy that our industry is so key to?

WMRR has been at pains to build that knowledge. To reiterate, a circular economy is one that first and foremost designs out waste and pollution, circulates products and materials at their highest value, and is regenerative in nature. Now, we all know there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done on that first principle with Australia having not embarked on a genuine extended producer responsibility path to-date nor tackling sustainable design regulations, and we really cannot go circular without changing the way products are designed and consumed. The Circularity Gap report states that at present, only 9% of materials are circular, so we have a long way to go, which is also a great opportunity.

Governments nationally have an obvious appetite to increase resource recovery and move away from placing valuable materials in landfill. We also recognise that we need to alter consumption behaviours as seen in the national targets, e.g., 80% average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030, halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030, and reducing waste generation by 10% per person by 2030. However, there is still no national plan or vision to drive circularity, similar to the European Green Deal, which includes a circular policy action plan. It is clear we have not joined the dots between carbon, material, and our sector.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to roll out the waste export bans, with the second stage of the plastics ban starting today (1 July 2022), and while this particular one is challenging for some materials – LDPE in particular - the concept of controlling and maximising our resources is the right one. However, we are still lacking a commitment to green public procurement across all levels of government (and business) to buy back these products that our sector continues to try to make with these secondary raw materials. We need real enforceable targets (dollars and tonnes) in all government policies now if we really are to hit 43% reduction of emissions in 90 months’ time. Further, data has shown that we can avoid carbon emissions by up to 89% if we recycle plastic and reduce energy consumption by a similar amount, so, it really is a no brainer and why are we not demanding more of this?

It is also equally vital that governments understand and continue to bolster our waste management and resource recovery (WARR) sector’s role in supporting the circular economy, ensuring that Australia has an effective WARR model which is one that is based on a systems-based approach towards material management utilising the waste management hierarchy. What does that mean in reality and how do we get there? Do jurisdictions and the community see the link between the materials we manage, the products we could make, and the real ability we can have on mitigating carbon impacts? What is the plan then between these regulatory decisions and targets with the capacity – facilities, activities, and services – required to ensure Australia meets the national WARR and carbon targets?

The WARR system is complex and all elements are interdependent; one cannot simply consider an aspect of WARR in isolation from the others. As such, systems thinking requires attention (strategic, regulatory, policy, investment, and more) to be given to all interrelated parts of the WARR model that work towards managing materials that it receipts – parts that are articulated in the adopted waste management hierarchy.

While it is a positive that Australia is taking a closer look at how we manage end-of-life materials on our shores, and there are now regulatory frameworks in place, what hasn’t kept pace is ensuring that we have appropriate capacity to deal with these materials. Meeting our capacity gaps has become an urgent task but it’s not just a case of “build it and they will come”. What we truly need is better data (collection and analysis) that captures the composition of all types of end-of-life materials that arise in Australia each year and their movements (i.e., material flows from consumption to end destination/outcome). Gaining a clear picture here will better inform the capacity and services required to manage our materials and how these are interrelated to each other to ensure effective planning of WARR networks. Importantly, we will also be able to map out future trends to future-proof policies, regulatory frameworks, the WARR network, and investments.  

The other equally important benefit of taking a systems-based approach towards WARR planning is that we will then be able to see where the shortfalls and gaps are. For instance, it has become increasingly evident that while the intent of the plastics waste ban was right and we support these bans, there are unintended consequences related to e-waste plastics which we do not have the capacity to process and manage. This is a risk that we are also facing with LDPE when the second ban commences. If we had taken a systems-based approach, we would have been able to track the flow of these materials, identifying the need for, and prioritising the processes and facilities required to manage these materials.

Each element of our WARR system - collection, recovery, recycling, and remanufacturing – require strategic planning and thinking, and so does improving existing residual waste management facilities and capabilities; when viewed strategically as a whole, we can then drive greater carbon mitigation as well as improved environmental and societal impacts.

The other part of this systems-based approach relates to the upstream management of materials. An area that perhaps isn’t well understood or articulated by governments is the significant impact that consumption and production decisions have on both the capacity and location of WARR infrastructure. Want more recycling and remanufacturing to occur in Australia? Well, we need regulations to direct the way products are created to not only be genuinely recyclable but to also be manufactured with recycled content. Have a desire to create less ‘waste’ and eliminate residual waste altogether? Then community needs to exert their consumption power and buy with repair, reuse, and refurbishment in mind.

Without focusing on each of these elements as interconnected and important players in the WARR and circular economy machine, then all the various government strategies that purport to be circular amount to nothing more than greenwashing.

Join WMRR at our 2022 ENVIRO conference in Canberra in August, where we will explore where the waste management hierarchy intersects with the circular economy and the role that industry, the community and government can play in driving greater circularity in Australia.