My eight-year-old daughter has had a few #iso meltdowns over the last two (2) months and I am sure she is not alone when she says: “I don’t like this year.” It’s been tough and there is no guarantee that we are past the worst of it. Floods, bushfires, and now COVID-19 - through it all, Australians have demonstrated our resilience. The social and economic costs of COVID-19 are mind-blowing and we cannot forget those who have lost their lives to the virus. We can however, acknowledge how our essential industry has responded and worked through this time (pushing forward with government) to keep our services operating and our staff safe.
Australia is to be congratulated (along with NZ) on its effective response to the pandemic and keeping so many safe. There have also been genuine ecological benefits of the pandemic-driven lockdown that arguably, following the bushfire season in the east, many never actually thought we’d see. While the economic consequences of the pandemic are akin to the Great Depression, it is vital we take this opportunity to strike a balance between the economy and environment as we pivot out of this challenging time to put Australia on a more sustainable path than what we were on before COVID-19; one that enables climate neutrality as well as competitiveness.
Pre-COVID-19 and post-bushfires, momentum had been steadily building to take stronger action to curb climate change and genuinely move towards a circular economy in Australia. With the current talk of bold reform occurring with governments and the national cabinet, this is the time to be resolute and recognise the value our industry has in creating the Australian society we want to live in.
On 28 April 2020, KPMG, at the request of the CSIRO, published their report, Potential economic pay-off of a circular economy for Australia, where they estimated a move to a ‘low waste, high efficiency economy in just three (3) sectors alone (food, transport and the built environment) would yield $23B NPV in 2025. To achieve this, we need to act now to eliminate waste along the industrial chain, re-use materials, and reduce resource dependence. Our global economy remains far too linear (the whole supply chain, not just at the disposal end) as we continue to rely heavily on the throughput of natural materials that are extracted, traded, processed, and finally disposed of as waste and emissions; only 12% of materials used in the EU for example, comes from recycled material.
Doesn’t the business case alone make sense for the transition? On 11 March 2020, the EU adopted its new Circular Economy Action Plan (Competitive Economy of Empowered Consumer), driving forward its goal of climate neutrality and creating a circular economy. Australia can lead the world on low emissions technology and services; we need to use our geographic and natural opportunity and look to the EU’s Action Plan, to leapfrog from where we are now with the rather pedestrian National Waste Policy 2018 to an economy that is less reliant on natural capital, low waste and high resource efficiency, with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
In Australia, we have begun to see coordinated efforts and engagement by the Australian government to deliver on the changes that our sector knows will undeniably lead to greener outcomes, economic repair and growth, and long-term local jobs. So, we are on the right path! In May 2020 alone, WMRR commented on the Climate Change Authority’s Emissions Reduction Fund review and the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources published a Technology Investment Roadmap discussion paper for consultation, mapping out a framework to accelerate low emissions technologies; our sector can contribute by building an innovative, sustainable, and long-term waste and resource recovery (WARR) sector through the use of, and investment in, low emission technology, landfill gas systems being the standard at all sites, and of course, energy from waste.
The impending COAG waste export bans and funding announcements would in part, support the transition to circular. However, like the EU, we must detail how each stakeholder in the supply chain can contribute to building a resource efficient economy, with the key aims being to decouple economic growth from resource use, and setting and meeting ambitious targets for reducing emissions and raw material reliance. Let’s start with the national supply chains that place the greatest pressure on raw materials and emissions - food, C&D, transport, textiles, and plastics.
Industry knows the investment pathways and actions related to the COAG waste export bans and the same work must be done to articulate the pathways and timelines for investment, innovation in technologies, and robust policies and strategies across all materials. We must take a leaf out of the EU’s book and use our geographic isolation to our advantage, developing a comprehensive high-quality secondary materials markets, not just for COAG ban materials but all secondary materials. We need to significantly increase the use of recovered materials throughout our entire economy. We desperately need to embed sustainable procurement across government and industry and jump to sustainable products and services, like the EU is proposing, to transform consumption and ensure waste is not created in the first place. We must have a nationally integrated WARR model to facilitate an effective closed loop system to support this transition.
Australia is an island but we are also part of a global economy, which means significant volumes of the materials we use are imported. This may change with COVID, and we can control some of this if we change many elements and build our own secondary materials marketplace based on remanufacturing and creating Australian jobs. Let’s not forget our Product Stewardship Act, which has applicability to product design. With 80% of a product’s environmental impact determined at the design phase, we can’t throw in the towel around the design of imported products. The Act offers powers to specify the materials we can and should accept – these are levers Australia must use to grow and domestic remanufacturing, stop the manufacture and use of single-use and/or hard-to-recycle products, and restrict the importation of potentially hazardous materials. We can’t wait another year to see this review.
KPMG’s made a strong economic case - we must stop thinking about industrial activities, jobs, economic growth, community health, and the environment in silos. A circular economy, with all its known benefits, is the plan for a future-ready and future-proofed Australia. We must be bold and act in all areas of government post-COVID including ours!