Upskilling for the war on waste

As Australia transitions to a circular economy, there are a range of skills gaps that will need to be filled, including market development and sustainable procurement, writes Sustainability Victoria’s Matt Genever.

The breadth and depth of skills across the waste and resource recovery sector is amazing. I’ve always marvelled at how diverse our industry is, with people coming from all sorts of work and personal backgrounds. The same holds true for my own team at Sustainability Victoria (SV) where trained teachers work alongside engineers who work alongside planners and on it goes. It’s fair to say the industry is blessed to have such wonderful people.

The Australian waste framework is about to undergo a massive transition, from the ‘take, make and dispose’ approach, toward a model that keeps resources in the productive economy for as long as possible. The current cohort of talented people will no doubt all find a very welcome home as we pivot toward a circular economy. But this begs the question, what new skills might we need to bring into the sector to enable this transition and how do we bring them in?

For SV, this is more than just a theoretical discussion – we have six brand new roles out for recruitment right now, so thinking about what skills could complement our existing cohort is front and centre.

So, what areas and skills do we need to be thinking about to enable the transition?

LOOKING UPSTREAM

The circular economy ideal can be broken down into three key parts:

  • How we design, make and purchase products (upstream)
  • How we use, reuse, repair and maintain products (midstream)
  • How we recover the highest value from those products at their end of life and return that value to the economy (downstream).

What we traditionally refer to as the ‘waste and resource recovery sector’ has been largely focused on downstream interventions – that is, investing in infrastructure and systems to enable households and businesses to safely manage waste and support recycling.

In going circular, we’ll need to link these existing systems more closely into upstream activities, like product design and consumer purchasing behaviours.

The manufacturing sector is already thinking about its role in sustainable product design, with a particularly strong focus on packaging. Other design skills will be required to ensure that products are being designed for disassembly, reuse or recycling at their end of life.

However, good design isn’t just about how products are made but also how they are used, and businesses of all types will need people who understand alternate models, such as lease, share and buyback arrangements.

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Waste avoidance is something the sector has been talking about for decades and this will be a huge focus of efforts going forward. Encouraging people and businesses to make informed decisions about what they buy or choose not to buy generally takes small, targeted interventions. The sector will need to build new skills in behavioural science, understanding how decisions get made and how best to influence or “nudge” their behaviours.

DIGITISING THE SECTOR

Intelligent use of data and digital technology will be one of the key enablers in the circular economy. Collecting, analysing and synthesising data is essential, but how that data is delivered back to industry and consumers is equally important. Like most government agencies, SV collects a wide range of data from across the waste and recycling industry. Our annual data surveys have been going for around 20 years and in recent years we have digitised and released much of this information.

However, there are many more opportunities for leveraging this data, particularly as new opportunities emerge in the industry to utilise blockchain technology. People with the skills to harness data to help guide industry investment, link buyers and sellers together and to use blockchain to support material stewardship are essential.

EMERGING RECYCLING TECHNOLOGIES

Further downstream, we are seeing the emergence of new recycling technologies, such as waste to energy and mechanical biological treatment, to capture resources from residual waste. Australia is some way behind other jurisdictions in the application of these technologies and our sector will need to continue upskilling in this area.

Obviously, an investment in advanced engineering capabilities will be required and this is already underway, but infrastructure is more than just engineering. These facilities need to be supported through land use planning, financing and procurement skills, particularly for larger facilities treating municipal waste.

Research from CSIRO on Attitudes and social acceptance in the waste and resource recovery sector highlights the importance of establishing and maintaining community trust in waste and recycling facilities. The importance of the social license to operate cannot be underestimated, and the sector will need to build its skills around community engagement to support the long-term viability of these facilities.

MARKET DEVELOPMENT AND SUSTAINABLE PROCUREMENT

Perhaps the most essential area for new skills development is around market development and sustainable procurement. The current issues stemming from our reliance on export markets for mixed paper and plastics suggest a lack of local markets for recovered materials. The sector needs new skills and new innovations to support domestic recycling and remanufacturing. This includes better links into advanced manufacturing and materials engineering, such as high-value uses for plastics and polymers.

As the largest purchaser of goods and services in the country, government (at all levels) will play a critical role in providing markets for recycled products and materials. Agencies like SV are currently in the process of attracting more knowledge in sustainable procurement and its application to support government to show leadership through purchasing.

It’s an exciting time in our sector and I look forward to seeing new people, new skills and new ideas coming in to support the war on waste!

Details about current roles at Sustainability Victoria in the war on waste can be found by clicking here.