WMAA's ENVIRO'18 Convention in late June was highly successful, with over 180 delegates coming together to discuss at length the need to transition to a Circular economy in Australia. The line-up of speakers included leaders from the international stage and, also some of the great things already taking place in Australia. In particular we heard from some of those who have for many years been practicing closed loop manufacturing in Australia. However those that attended ENVIRO'18 would be in no doubt that Australia really is a long way behind Europe, Japan, and many other countries that are all moving rapidly along their circular journeys, some starting as early as 2001.
It is fair to say that throughout Australia the bulk of industry adheres to the waste management hierarchy, which means that we reuse and recycle as many resources as we can - and when we send to landfill we ensure we manage it well! However in my mind, we have been hampered in Australia by the lack of government understanding of our industry, and ipso facto the lack of market for our products. Those who are already moving toward circular thinking, are generally doing so without much support or recognition.
So, what is circular? Quite simply, it is the need to keep resources at the highest and best value for as long as possible. History has shown that industry alone cannot drive this change to circular economy - that is the change required for both thinking and acting differently, and doing so on a broad scale rather than just with a couple of particular items. The challenge for now, is that whilst circular economy remains the language of our industry, it is not been embraced or understood by everyone, which means we continue to have a semi-circular conversation, which never achieves the systemic change required to have the community and producers see waste as the resource it is.
To be frank, it would appear that waste in Australia continues to be viewed as a cost, and this is despite the good work of shows like War on Waste. We face a real challenge convincing society (at all levels) to recognise the value of the resources we create. China's implementation of its National Sword policy has stressed the importance of Australia moving quickly to make this transition (ironically, part of the driver for China's policy was the desire to become a circular economy).
Whilst Australia is special, it is not unique. There is much we can learn from overseas experience in transitioning towards a circular economy, and an obvious option is to follow the path of Europe. However, whilst the European Union (EU) has managed to pull 28 countries together in one direction, laying the foundations for success (proximity principle, zero waste, genuine polluter pays policy, bans on single use items, carbon policy approaches, etc), Australia struggles!
I was lucky enough this week to spend some more time with Caroline Lambert, EU Commissioner for Climate and Environment, who presented at ENVIRO'18. An interesting discussion was held as to why Australia was so far behind Europe, and whilst Caroline was not passing comment on the policies adopted in Australia, it was noted that the significant difference between Europe and Australia, is that it is not either (Federal) or (State) approach to policy, rather the EU and member states all move forward together - in fact it is a competitive race to the top!
The fundamental policies such as proximity principle, landfill levies, reducing carbon impacts, increasing diversion rates, increasing recycling rates, banning single use items (i.e. reducing waste creation), polluter pays principles - are universally accepted and adopted in Europe. We need leadership to agree and implement the same!
I was hoping that after the 27 April 2018 meeting of Ministers I would be writing this, updating the activities that are happening to provide relief for the recycling industry and move towards a circular economy in Australia, but I don't think I can - China's policy has brought our industry yet again into the spotlight, but the inability of Government to engage and understand continues.
Since April we have had some announcements that can contribute to the policy settings required for governments to move towards circular economy, including the confirmation that a landfill levy will be reintroduced in Queensland in early 2019. Victoria has shown further leadership by announcing a $24 million funding towards recycling, with strong support for developing markets for recovered products.
However the key to success in Australia will be recognition by government and all of industry that there needs to be a 'level playing field' as in reality waste does not recognise borders. We need government at all levels to stop passing responsibility for our industry and agree to implement all elements of successful waste and resource recovery policy, and hence circular economy principles in Australia. This does not mean that landfill levies will be the same rate, for example, rather that all states will have policies along with all other fundamentals policy levers such as strategic infrastructure planning, diversion targets, green public procurement, recycling content targets, levy reinvestment, proximity principle, market development, etc. In the absence of these policy levers, we will continue to simply go in circles. In Australia we still hear too often, "that is not my role" and progress in policies that require national consistency, like proximity principle, are bogged down in bureaucratic handballing and political games. Meanwhile industry (and sometimes government) continue to be commercially impacted.
The fact is in Australia at present, in spite of China's National Sword having significant impacts on the community and industry, there really are only two states that have a structure that recognises and supports market development for the resources from our industry. Similarly, these are the only two states that have provided new real funding to support industry at this time, with another state having only 25% of the total announcement being new funds, making it extremely difficult for industry to gain relief at this critical time to assist in managing the impact and transition required following China.
I have had many governments tell me lately that they do recognise that our industry is essential, however we are yet to see that recognition formally. My greatest concern, as I move around Australia talking to both industry and government, is that we have become an academic exercise for policy makers now that we are no longer front page news; it genuinely feels that the urgency felt in April has dissipated. Arguably this is highlighted by the cancelling of the Ministers' follow up in June. Meanwhile, industry is arguably under more pressure commercially than it has ever been.
War on Waste will present an opportunity for public awareness and pressure, however whilst I would like to think our industry really should be above politics, if need be we have at least two elections coming up that we can and should feature in. We have to get policy in our industry right, and we need to do it now!
Chief Executive Officer