Towards a circular economy

2018 has brought a host of challenges for local governments, giving rise to calls for Federal Government leadership to promote and strengthen a circular economy in Australia, writes Australian Local Government Association President David O’Loughlin.

Waste management in Australia is currently in a state of review and revision. We are producing more waste and many of our current market solutions, materials pathways and collection services are no longer viable or sustainable. 

In 2014-15, Australia generated 64 million tonnes of waste, with 54 per cent going to recycling, four per cent to energy recovery and a whopping 42 per cent to disposal in landfill and incineration, according to Blue Environment’s latest Exports of recyclables from Australia to China report. 

The 2016 National Waste Report shows our rates of waste generation and recycling are around the average for a developed economy. However, as a nation we know (and our community increasingly expects) that we can do much more to reduce the amount of waste generated and make it easier for products to be recycled.

Having long been at the coal-face of waste management, no other level of government understands this urgent need more than local councils. We are the kerbside collectors, community educators and often the processors and landfill managers.

But 2018 has brought with it a range of new challenges for us to contend with. These include balancing the rising costs of collection and processing services with meeting the expectations of communities and ratepayers – all while continuing to encourage good waste management practices already occurring in most Australian households.

Recent decisions impacting the export of recyclates to overseas processors caught many off guard and the global collapse in prices triggered a chain of discussions and renegotiations between service providers and councils around the nation. The effects being felt at the local level to date have been varied. Some councils are reeling from the financial impact, some believe they are immune, while many are adopting very progressive policy positions regarding banning or phasing out single-use plastics and actively seeking to utilise their procurement power to preference purchase of products with high levels of recycling and to drive change in the marketplace.

The idea of moving to a more circular economy is not new. European nations have introduced a range of targets and initiatives to better capture and use resources already in the system and reduce the amount of new materials being added to the “global waste bin”. Australia has to play catch up, but we can certainly learn lessons from others along the way.

A move towards a circular economy requires system-wide change. It affects material processing and application in product design. It affects the buying decisions we make, as consumers on everyday items as well as at commercial and government procurement levels. It also affects the end of life for products and packaging, when the materials change from being a resource or product to being regarded as waste or, hopefully, feedstock for other products. 

This is where local government has a big role to play – providing collection services and working with recycling processors and product stewardship schemes to help turn waste into a resource, and returning as much as possible back into the system for the materials to be reused, recycled or composted. 

But the responsibility to cultivate a circular economy doesn’t solely lie with local government. While the primary obligation for waste management in Australia is dealt with under state law, the Federal Government also has a critical role in promoting and strengthening a circular economy for a sustainable future. Failure to do so risks mounting stockpiles of recycled materials manufactured here and overseas, along with the associated safety concerns and ever-increasing amounts of potentially useful materials going to landfill.  

At the next election, the Australian Local Government Association will call for the incoming Federal Government to play a more effective role in strengthening Australia’s circular economy. 

They can achieve this by leading, developing and implementing a national waste and resource recovery strategy, in collaboration with key stakeholders, underpinned by circular economy principles, the waste hierarchy, product stewardship and extended producer responsibility.

At a minimum the strategy should address six key areas:

1. More emphasis should be placed on extended producer responsibility, with a clear focus on improving the design and manufacturing of products and packaging – including supply chain considerations and imports – so that unnecessary, problematic or hazardous materials are avoided, volumes are reduced and material content is more easily reprocessed into new products.

2. The need for clear and nationally consistent messaging in education campaigns with a focus on reducing consumption, encouraging waste avoidance and building on our good efforts to recycle more in our homes, community, government and businesses. This includes setting national targets for waste reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery.

3. Streamlining current collection systems to provide nationally sustainable and commercially viable options that capture valuable resources and create new onshore jobs. This should benefit all stakeholders in the product lifecycle – from the producer, consumer, ratepayer and processing industry to remanufacturers and purchasers – as well as the Australian economy.  

4. Improving the number, capacity and technical capabilities of onshore processing facilities, including infrastructure upgrades, improving sorting technology and increasing processing fidelity.

5. Leveraging government procurement and funding opportunities to drive demand for products containing recycled materials and supporting local innovative product development to establish new market solutions.

6. Improving data capture, reporting and system improvement protocols so we can more consistently and thoroughly track performance and drive further improvements over time.

Failure to adopt a coordinated, Australia-wide approach will lead to inefficient local circular economies which may lack the scale and impact necessary to generate new industries, markets and job creation. Our advantage right now is that “waste” has taken a prominent place in the national conversation, so now is the time to put a strategy and system in place that will create a more sustainable future for the generations that come after us.

In 10 years’ time, my vision is that product manufacture and waste processing should be a flourishing, interconnected and economically viable industry union, where products and packaging are made from materials that are easily collected, efficiently reprocessed and profitably incorporated into new products as preferred feedstock.

This will benefit the environment, local and national industry, employment and investment activity, the national economy and local taxpayers. It will also lead to a higher level of social licence for manufacturers and greater participation in recycling by local consumers as they see tangible evidence of resource reuse in their local roads, park furniture and mulch, food production and their personal consumption choices.   

I hope that this vision can become reality. Many consumers are asking why we are not there already.

This article was published in the November issue of Waste Management Review.