Scaling up the circular economy

How progressive is Australia compared with the rest of the world when it comes to actioning circular economy principles? Waste Management Review investigates.

Over the years, much has been said about abandoning the “take, make, dispose” model of a product’s lifecycle in favour of a circular economy.

According to British registered charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is an alternative to this traditional linear mode. The circular economy focuses on keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value out of them and recovering them into new products at the end of their life.

The foundation notes today’s economic model has relied on large quantitates of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy, a model that is reaching its physical limits.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation aims to progress the circular economy. In Australia, while the concept has been widely discussed, no such association exists.

OVERSEAS ACTION

Progress in Europe has seen extensive research into legislating circular economy principles. The European Commission – an institution representing the European Union – this year launched the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform in collaboration with the European Economic and Social Committee. The platform brings together stakeholder input and views through coordinated action, including public authorities, think tanks, universities, businesses and trade unions.

The EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy also sets out ambitious targets to close the loop on product lifecycles, including a common EU target for recycling 75 per cent of packaging waste by 2030 and 65 per cent of all municipal waste.

The commission’s 2015 report: Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the Circular Economy, focuses on product design, production processes, consumption and waste management. It notes that the circular economy starts at the beginning of a product’s life and focuses on the important role of all stakeholders working together to ensure resources are able to be re-distributed back into the economy. Design and production processes can impact on sourcing, resource use and waste generation throughout a product’s life, the report argues.

“Better design can make products more durable or easier to repair, upgrade or remanufacture. It can help recyclers to disassemble products in order to recover valuable materials and components,” it says.

“However, current market signals appear insufficient to make this happen, in particular because the interests of producers, users and recyclers are not aligned.

“It is therefore essential to provide incentives for improved product design, while preserving the single market and competition, and enabling innovation.”

After the Circular Economy Action Plan was launched, the commission asked European standardisation organisations to develop generic standards on the durability, reusability and recyclability of certain products, according to a report on the implementation of the plan in 2017. The commission also established tools such as best practice and procurement information to consumers and other support schemes as part of its suite of measures, including regulations to create a genuine single market for fertilisers made from secondary raw materials.

LOCAL PROGRESS

A major framework policy emblematic of the circular economy is the Federal Government’s Product Stewardship Act 2011, which is currently under review. The Act provides a framework for environmental management of products, including voluntary, co-regulatory and mandatory stewardship. The legislation acknowledges those involved in producing, selling, using and disposing of products have a shared responsibility to ensure those products are managed in a way that reduces their impact on the environment, health and safety throughout their lifecycle. Under the Act, the government has also legislated the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS), which introduced co-regulatory responsibility for those that manufacture or import TVs or computers to ensure their products are being recycled at end of life.

Since the introduction of the Product Stewardship Act 2011, several industries have already taken the lead in responsibly managing their products, including Tyre Stewardship Australia and Paintback, which represent the tyre and paint industries respectively.

Waste Management Review speaks to various stakeholders working towards a circular economy to gauge their thoughts on the progress in Australia.

POWERING THE CHANGE

Jodie Bricout.

Jodie Bricout, Co-founder of Loop Circular Economy Platform, spent the last 13 years supporting the circular economy movement in France. She has been instrumental in organising Australia’s first conference dedicated to the circular economy, Powering the change, which took place in Adelaide in November. Jodie says Europe is further than ahead Australia in the space due to a coordinated effort from the business sector.

“In Australia, there’s no groundswell for the circular economy. I can’t see a collective national understanding of what it means yet. I think there’s a lot of really great initiatives that are on the right path, but they are disconnected,” Jodie says.

While there are some promising projects merging in Australia, a greater collaboration is needed with product designers, manufactures and recyclers, she adds.

“If you’re wanting to change the way a product is delivered in the economy, one company can’t do it alone. A business needs to be able to work with other companies in the supply chain.”

By planning for a product’s end of life, Jodie says the waste management sector has potential to become a higher value industry. Jodie says in organic waste as an example, having a market for agricultural products spurs investment in composting infrastructure, which leads to competition and a higher value product. This also has relevance in logistics, she adds, as major companies involved in procuring products can plan for a products end-of-life destination in advance.

CIRCULAR CONCEPTS

Peter Mulherin.

With more than 30 years’ experience in construction, manufacturing and project management, Peter Mulherin, Director of Australian start-up ProductWise, has developed a technology platform to help companies procure products from manufacturers who have proved their design features comply with a common set of regulations and sustainable production methods. In the construction sector, for example, this could include national construction codes for flammability, material components, asbestos or hazardous chemicals.

Peter explains that the platform works by identifying three phases in a product’s lifecycle, including sourcing materials and product design, manufacturing and supplying for use in the market.

“If you can recover all of the materials and re-sell the product, it’s an asset. If it goes to landfill and the labour cost is more than the recovery, you’ve got a liability,” Peter explains.

“With our platform, that liability and asset can be identified at the point of procurement and ensures that liabilities are identified at the level of design and manufacture.”

It also creates additional value for companies in the area of environmental management, he says, as they are able to show corporate responsibility through procurement choices and reflect this in their annual reports and environmental assessments.

“If you look at a circular economy, you’re trying to catch or prevent leakage in the life cycle. Leakage is where you create waste or you release value.”

Peter is working with RMIT University and recycling company Egans Asset Management, developing a case study of Egans’ Wise Office Furniture Program, a product stewardship scheme for used furniture.

“Looking at office furniture, if you get to a point where desk manufacturers design their product in such a way that they can recover the materials, reuse and remodel them and resell them, it creates a whole different business proposition to the conventional desk seller,” Peter says.

“This enables greater competition with new products and that competition, although it’s a small element, puts competitive pressure on manufacturers to ask: How do we innovate? How do we bring our costs down? How do we design products that can be reused?”

CIRCULAR E-WASTE

For Nick Florin, Research Director at the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, the potential for a circular economy in Australia remains largely untapped. Nick helped coordinate a circular economy-focused program in collaboration with other universities.

Nick Florin.

Wealth from Waste is a three-year research program that focuses on extracting metal resources contained in collections of discarded manufactured products and consumer goods. The $9 million program is a collaborative effort with Monash University, the University of Queensland, Swinburne University and Yale University, with support from CSIRO. It aims to enable the transition to a circular economy for metals from linear to circular.

Nick believes investment in e-waste product stewardship is limited at present and should be expanded beyond the NTCRS to other products.

“The Product Stewardship Act could be a good enabler for more circular e-waste with the NTCRS having delivered significant reductions in the amount of e-waste going to landfill. However, progress towards expanding the scope, including to batteries, is too slow as it relies on strong leadership from industry.”

Nick welcomed the recent commitment by state leaders at this year’s Meeting of Environment Ministers to consider battery stewardship approaches at their next meeting, with potential regulations to support an industry-led scheme.

The universities in Wealth from Waste worked with government and industry stakeholders to identify market barriers and carry out research that supports product stewardship.

Nick also believes that more accountability is needed from manufacturers and designers to ensure they’re developing sustainable products, particularly when it comes to e-waste.

“Mobile phones are the classic example, often made of more than 80 different materials mixed together, so we can only go so far in separating them and selling them back into the production of new products,” he says.

“One of the other challenges of mobile phones is many people hoard them in their drawers so they don’t end up being recycled.”

Nick says the consumer has a role to play in influencing change. If they better understood what items were recyclable, that would help grow demand for products from manufacturers that can go back into the product lifecycle.

“Sending signals to consumers about energy efficiency is pretty well established, but there isn’t really the same information provided about recyclability.”

Overall, Nick advocates for a combination of government and market intervention.

“There needs to be a combination of approaches. Australia seems to have a bit of an aversion to regulation in this space.

“For example, in the area of product standards, having a criteria for assessing the quality of products and their recyclability and what products are allowed onto the market is very important.”

Wealth from Waste also cites the high cost of collection for metal-bearing waste as a market barrier due to Australia’s sprawling population and market size.

“There is also a lack of data on the stocks and flows of metal waste in cities, which is important for investors in new recycling infrastructure to be confident,” Nick adds.

THE ROLE OF THE GENERATOR

Justin Jones, Director of JustWaste, says waste generators have a role to play in working with product manufacturers to ensure they’re procuring recyclable products.

Justin Jones.

“I recently completed a project with a major multinational company and learnt that 20 per cent of their waste stream was made up of a non-recyclable plastic tray,” Justin says.

“They actually went back to their manufacturer and said ‘you need to provide us with particular trays that are recyclable’. You have to ask them: Why are they using this product? Is there an alternative? In this case, the manufacturer came back and said there is an alternative and at no additional cost.” 

In the case of designing products that are recyclable, Justin says part of the problem lies in the fact that the industry exports numerous products to overseas countries, with no guarantee they will return to the product lifecycle. In July of this year, China notified the World Trade Organization that it plans to ban the import of 24 different types of solid waste from Japan, USA, Australia and other source countries by the end of 2017, in a bid to reduce pollution. Justin says if the ban does take place it may improve the outcome for ensuring products return to the product lifecycle onshore.

A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

With more than 30 years’ experience in procurement and change management, Carmel Dollisson, Chief Executive Officer Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform Limited (ANZRP), says that manufacturers, retailers, governments and consumers have a shared responsibility to ensure products are recycled, reused and returned back into the economy.

Carmel Dollisson.

Carmel operates TechCollect, a free national recycling service for computers, computer accessories and TVs. TechCollect was established in response to the Federal Government’s NTCRS. Under the NTCRS, computer and TV manufacturers and importers are required to join and fund a government-approved service such as TechCollect. Since its formation in 2011, TechCollect has worked closely with its suppliers and federal and state regulators to improve the scheme.

When it comes to shared responsibility and the manufacturing sector, Carmel says larger corporations and some niche players are manufacturing products that include recyclable materials, while a number of others are not as responsible.

“I think there’s a huge middle mass that is just manufacturing for consumption. It is all about education and awareness and a lot of that has to come from the consumer,” Carmel says.

“Once the consumer, including the major waste generators, start asking for a product they can repair, reuse or its components can be reused, or there’s a program in place to responsibly recover and recycle the materials so they know it’s not going to landfill, only then can widespread change occur.

“If the retailers could be part of that education program, then we know that message could get out when people are buying.”

Governments also have a responsibility to mandate for change, Carmel adds. ANZRP recently released a white paper in response to the government’s review of the Product Stewardship Act 2011. The paper calls for the inclusion of batteries and products that require a power source to be included under the Act. Among the host of recommendations are a requirement for the federal government to report the e-waste reuse volume under the scheme, a federally-led education and awareness campaign on the benefits of product stewardship, and a requirement for retailers of e-products to offer drop off points for used e-waste products. Non-scheme recyclers and landfill operators should also be required to report the volume of waste they treat, it argues.

“We have a very good framework of legislation where the producer is responsible for the end-of-life treatment of products through voluntary and co-regulatory schemes.

“However, the current product stewardship scheme focuses on end-of-life recycling, it doesn’t focus on reuse.

“It doesn’t focus on reparability, design for recycling, and removal of hazardous substances,” Carmel says.

Carmel says in some cases, Australians benefit from the legislation in other jurisdictions, largely because most of the products we consume are manufactured by global players in one or two locations around the world. They must therefore meet the standards of the Europeans and the Americas.

She says this is particularly the case with TVs and computers, which are not manufactured in Australia. The RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, for instance, requires heavy metals used in electrical and electronic equipment to be substituted for safer materials.

“It’s possible to say that because they have legislation for the removal of hazardous substances and they’re looking at design for reuse, repairability and recycled content that we’re getting the upside of that, without having to specifically legislate.”   

The European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization also applies a common set of standards to electrical engineering.

Carmel says a true circular economy doesn’t have an end, as products are constantly kept at their highest value and in use.

“If there were to be an international treaty or agreement on the circular economy which Australia got involved in, that would be a good outcome.”