CEO Report: Inside Waste October - November 2022 Issue

On Australia's #WARR-path to a circular economy

It’s been four (4) years since WMRR launched its circular economy conference, and this year, ENVIRO returned, in Canberra no less, home to a federal government that has made significant climate-related commitments in just a little over 100 days in office.

When we reflect on the conversations that we are having today, there is little doubt that Australia has come a long way. Sustainability no longer simply equates to recycling, increasingly we are seeing far greater understanding that sustainability starts with material and how we manage it - moving rapidly up the waste management hierarchy including the entire supply chain, with greater (though arguably, far from enough) consideration of issues such as consumption, product design and the direct impact that this has on carbon emissions.  

The new federal government moved quickly on carbon, from announcing a review of the ACCUs, led by Professor Ian Chubb, to consulting on options to reform the Safeguard Mechanism to tackle emissions in line with climate targets. It feels good to be talking openly about carbon and climate change. I believe that the government has its eye on the right thing – finding ways to enable emitters to take ownership of, and reduce their emissions, be it through baselines or incentives.

However, these initiatives need to be aligned and integrated. A one-size-fits-all approach to earning ACCUs through the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is unviable given not all emissions nor emitters are the same (e.g., carbon dioxide vs. methane; emissions produced during the manufacturing process vs. emissions produced through the receipt of disposed materials). There must be acknowledgement too that the ERF can capture many more opportunities through our sector with new thinking. 

I genuinely think that we are on the cusp of real change both in policy and behaviour. ENVIRO provided a forum for presenters and delegates to explore the roles and responsibilities we need based on where we are at and where we want to be. 

It is no secret that Australia is behind in the circular economy ‘race’, but there was a definite feeling in Canberra that we are closing the gap.  However, what is missing is a clear agreed vision for Australia to get there. The task is not insurmountable, given we will not be first to do this. In fact, we can get there far quicker by drawing on the experiences of the UK and EU.

WRAP UK CEO, Dr Marcus Gover and EU advisor, Scott Wyatt provided updates on the significant progress made in the region thanks to their various directives, actions on material streams, and of course the EU’s Green Deal. I have and will continue to advocate for our own Green Deal because we need a growth strategy to transform Australia into a modern, competitive economy that is decoupled from resource use and sets out a pathway to net zero. However, that is not all. We urgently need a national circular economy, or at least a material management strategy, that links priority materials and action to carbon mitigation, particularly if we are serious about cutting emissions by 43% by 2030.

As the ENVIRO program continued, a very clear picture emerged – there are five (5) key material streams of focus globally – food, construction, transport, textiles, and fossil fuel extraction (plastics). Other than food (and this does not cover the entire supply chain), Australia does not come close to having national strategies for any of the other materials.  Possibly it’s time to change thinking and move from the traditional MSW, C&I, and C&D approach, and develop robust regulatory and national policy frameworks for specific materials streams, starting with these five (5)?

We saw that better research and data continues to be developed and published on the net benefits of moving to a circular economy, and of course, there are several circularity metrics that should be measured, is it time we did our own Circularity Gap report for Australia, I think so! One that all countries, including Australia, remains fixated on (and with good reason), is carbon emissions. This is an exciting area of development because in quantifying accurately the direct and indirect benefits – jobs, environment, economy – of emissions abatement, we will be able to drive greater policy certainty and circular business model disruption.

There were many fascinating presentations at ENVIRO including Taku Ide’s update on Cleanaway’s approach to defining its emissions reduction targets to align with a 1.5˚C world. There was a bit of an a-ha moment in the room as Taku explained the two (2) main greenhouse gases that we should take into account – carbon dioxide and methane – and how these heat or cool the earth. In reality, we need to aim for net zero carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) emissions and de-production of methane.

In Australia, methane emissions from landfill contribute about 10% of Australia’s total methane emissions; the remainder come from fugitive emissions from the agricultural and oil and gas sectors. Turning to CO2-e, our sector only contributes 2.5-3.5% of Australia’s total emissions. These are tiny volumes compared to other sectors and we already have in place initiatives to maximise mitigation. But we know that our sector is a heavy hitter, often punching above its weight and we can also do that here in three (3) ways – if we displace virgin material with secondary raw material, return carbon-derived products back to soil (a win for agriculture too!), and use residual waste to produce low carbon energy.

There are countless reasons why we need to urgently move to a circular economy, which was brilliantly captured in mikebarryeco director, Mike Barry’s presentation. For one, pollution is increasingly visible. Geopolitical factors also have a major impact on our resources – which are quickly depleting as well - and we are seeing greater strategic control of key raw materials, for instance, the global ongoing supply chain challenges that we are facing as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war.  We need to make more in Australia!

I know our sector will continue to do the heavy lifting, we will continue to invest and innovate, continue to make secondary raw materials. And whilst we are only one part of the circular economy equation, we will play a major part in Australia’s transition to a circular economy.

We now need, the entire supply chain and our governments to work with us to break the linear dynamic of our economy. We are this close to moving from cradle to grave, to cradle to cradle, and I am optimistic that we will get there as efforts (hopefully) ramp up over the next 12 to 18 months. Exciting times ahead!