The state of waste: Dr Gillian Sparkes

Waste Management Review talks to Dr. Gillian Sparkes, Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, about the 2018 State of the Environment Report.

Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Act 2003 includes a statutory requirement that the Commissioner prepare and submit a periodical report measuring environmental indicators across the state, at intervals not exceeding five years.

According to Dr. Gillian Sparkes, Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, the report functions as an environmental score card with recommendations for improvement. She adds that the report’s legislative authority means government must formally respond to recommendations.

The State of the Environment 2018 Report (SoE) was released in March of this year and Waste Management Review spoke to Gillian in September.

Gillian has served as Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability since 2014, leading reforms in environmental monitoring, assessment and reporting.

“Science has played a pivotal role in my life. It is the foundation on which I built my career and pursued my passions; helping others, solving problems, delivering change in complex environments and resolving difficult issues,” Gillian says.

According to Gillian, the SoE provides community with access to previously unavailable baseline science. It is also the first time the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been comprehensively applied to state level environmental reporting
in Australia.

The SDGs function as a roadmap towards sustainable development by offering a consensus framework against which progress is measured.

Gillian says the framework allows her team to measure improvement and decline across a broader socio-economic suite of indicators than traditional biophysical SoE reports. She adds that this information can be used to compare Victoria’s performance with other jurisdictions.

“This allows us to understand the entire system and see the balance between environmental, social and economic considerations,” she says.

“My team and I are now preparing the framework for the SoE 2023. It will build on the scientific baseline and SDG alignment presented in the SoE 2018. The framework for the SoE 2023 report will be tabled in the Victorian parliament in 2020.”

According to Gillian, the SoE 2018 also introduces the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) into state-level environmental reporting for the first time, with a focus on the contribution and benefit of ecosystem services to Victoria’s $400 billion economy.

“SEEA will allow us to have broader conversations with government, business and industry,” Gillian says.

“A national waste account is a priority for the national set of Environmental-Economic accounts and is under development by the Meeting of Environment Ministers.”

DATA GAPS

The SoE highlights the significance of waste and resource recovery in the integrated environmental system, noting it has the power to deplete natural resources, create pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions and affect human health.

As such, resource recovery must be a key element of any systematic response to environmental challenges and emerging global megatrends such as climate change, disruptive technologies and natural resource constraints.

Gillian says while waste and resource recovery data is more substantive than in some sectors, public reporting that matches her office’s aspirations for monitoring and understanding the circularity of Victoria’s economy, or the health of the waste and resource recovery system as a whole, is limited.

“The SoE identifies a need to develop indicators that track the overall health of the resource recovery system including markets, not just to rely on current metrics such as tonnes of waste generated, tonnes sent to landfill, or tonnes recycled,” she says.

“We have good data on total waste generation and municipal waste per capita, but the data on litter and illegal dumping is poor and on hazardous waste is only fair.”

Additionally, Victoria has not yet agreed on indicators to track the circular economy transition, according to the report.

“We need to strive for more real-time data for regulators and managers, and the participation of citizen scientists in the data acquisition processes of government,” Gillian says.

“A circular economy will challenge our assumptions and we must ensure that we have the right data. It’s about knowing what we need to know, when we need to know it.”

TRANSITION

Earlier this year, the Victorian Government opened its draft Victorian Circular Economy Policy for public comment.

According to the official document, the policy aims to redefine growth by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and design waste out of the system.

The document also highlights durable product design to incentivise reuse and repair and share economy business models. An action plan and official policy document are set for release in 2020.

“This shift reflects the pathway Victoria has already identified to improve outcomes from this sector, and the metrics and recommendations of the 2018 SoE support this decision,” Gillian says.

“Circular economy indicators will be developed in line with the policy to enable expanded reporting beyond the linear system, monitor the operation and circularity of Victoria’s waste and resource recovery system and track progress of the transition. Good data enables good decision making.”

The SoE recommends a transition pathway through community and business engagement with whole-of-government buy-in.

“A circular economy cannot focus only on waste and recycling if it is to drive change in the way people consume resources,” the report states.

“It needs to encompass all aspects of the resources cycle, including resource extraction, imports, consumer behaviour, markets development and enabling procurement policies across the private and public sectors.”

Gillian advises that the state government align its instructional planning and procurement processes, to support the delivery of the proposed policy.

“The size of the task ahead can’t be underestimated, and will require continued and diverse investment in the sector including research and development, technology, infrastructure, plant and equipment, consumer education, new markets for recycled products and the development and enforcement of appropriate regulatory regimes,” she explains.

Gillian says continuing to advocate for a national approach to waste and resource recovery is fundamental to the transition.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The SoE also recommends that Sustainability Victoria (SV) develop indicators for the Statewide
Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan and Regional Waste and Resource Recovery Implementation Plan.

“From July 2020, I have recommended that SV expand its monitoring and reporting framework to track the progress of strategy implementation and publicly report, at least annually, on Victoria’s transition to a circular economy – plus investment in long-term, state-wide community education to improve outcomes for this sector,” Gillian says.

“The government will formally respond to these recommendations by March 2020, and SV will be represented in that response.”

Additionally, the SoE recommends the Victorian Government, commencing in the metropolitan region as a minimum, align institutional planning and procurement processes, including leveraging Victorian Government Procurement.

Gillian says the model could be extended to environmental outcomes, such as specifying a recycled material content requirement for government projects.

“This alignment would be adopted state-wide and enable an orderly transition to a circular economy by 2030,” she says.

The SoE also notes that when developing the policy action plan, the roles of all agencies should be clarified, with responsibilities for delivery, procurement, reporting and regulatory roles nominated.

Gillian adds that government procurement could be used as an activator for circular outcomes.

“For example, the former Victorian Industry Participation Policy, now known as the Local Jobs First Policy, requires companies to use a specified amount of local content to participate in Victorian government tenders,” Gillian says.

“To achieve our ambition to move away from 20th century take, make, waste business models, innovation and leadership from the private sector is key.”

Related stories:

Victorian State of the Environment report lists recommendations

The Victorian State of the Environment 2018 report says the Victorian Government needs to align its institutional planning and procurement processes to support the delivery of its planned circular economy strategy.

The report, commissioned by Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Dr Gillian Sparkes, says five out of six waste indicators are stable.

Indicators used were total waste generation, generation of municipal waste per capita, total food waste generated, diversion rate, littler and illegal dumping and total hazardous waste managed and reported.

While most indicators are stable, except litter and illegal dumping which is improving, the report says the total amount of waste generated is poor and offers two key recommendations to improve the waste situation in Victoria.

First, in 2019 Sustainability Victoria need to develop indicators and implement a comprehensive monitoring and reporting framework to measure delivery of the statewide Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan against circular-economy design principals.

Recommendations suggest that from July 2020 this progress should be expanded and a reporting framework that tracks progress put in place, with a public report released annually.

Second, the Victorian Government needs to align its institutional planning and procurement processes to support the delivery of the circular economy strategy and clarify which agencies will be responsible for delivering policy, procurement, program, reporting and regulatory roles.

The report says this alignment should be adopted statewide to enable an orderly transition to a circular economy in Victoria by 2030, with the initial focus being reducing consumption and contamination levels in kerbside recycling.

Recommendations also note that the Victorian Government needs to commit to long-term, systemic, statewide community education to support these transitions and improve long-term system outcomes.

Related stories:

X