Treading the circular path

Treading the circular path

The new National Waste Policy acknowledges the importance of a circular economy, but is largely a missed opportunity, writes Jenni Downes, Senior Research Consultant at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures.

Following on the heels of the China sword crisis, the path towards a circular economy in Australia surged forward last year, in large part due to the leadership of state governments.

The South Australian Government can take some credit as a first mover. Back in 2017, it commissioned research into the benefits of transitioning to a circular economy and dedicated Green Industries SA to progressing it. 

In March 2018, the WA Government first indicated their new waste strategy would likely include circular economy principles. In June, the Queensland Government announced in a directions paper that it would progressively move towards a circular economy, and shortly after, the Victorian Government committed to developing a circular economy Policy by 2020. 

In October 2018, the NSW Government leapfrogged these commitments by releasing a draft Circular Economy Policy statement for discussion.

The Federal Government also joined the conversation, agreeing as part of the seventh Meeting of Environment Ministers last April that an update to the 2008 National Waste Policy by the end of 2018 would include circular economy principles. The government met the year-end deadline, releasing the 2018 National Waste Policy in early December, following an intense, though brief, round of industry engagement and public consultation and agreement at the eighth Meeting of Environment Ministers.

The new national policy acknowledges the importance of a circular economy, but limits the scope of such to closing material loops according to the waste hierarchy. In essence, it is just a progression of Australia’s “recycling” economy.

This approach misses the truly revolutionary nature of a circular economy. A circular economy ideally aims to maximise the lifespan of whole products and components as well as materials and energy, by developing innovative business models that transform whole systems of production, distribution and consumption. These systems also support sharing, reuse, repair, refurbishing, reassembly and remanufacturing as well as recycling and energy recovery.

For example, this can include:

  1. Products as services: through sharing/collaborative consumption initiatives, pay-for-use, leasing/take backs/subscriptions/upgrades and performance purchasing agreements.
  2. Transformed products: these include modular design of dismantable components, allowing for easier upgrade, repair and refurbishment for ‘extended life’, and reassembly and remanufacture for ‘next life’, plus designing for recyclability at “end-of-life”.
  3. Innovative recycling: leveraging new technologies and capabilities to recover almost any type of resource at a level of value equivalent to, or even above, that of the initial material.

The role of the waste and resource recovery sector in the third opportunity is obvious. But the sector also has an opportunity to support and enable broader transformations, by reimagining its own role in the economy and growing beyond end-of-life services to support extended life and next life approaches, which aim to stop items from becoming waste in the first place.

While this may seem counterintuitive for a sector whose business models mostly rely on the production of waste, such contrary transformations are already happening in other industries. In the energy sector for example, where decentralised generation and storage are disrupting traditional revenue streams, energy businesses are beginning the transition from selling energy (where profits have traditionally been derived from how much energy people consume) to selling energy services (including energy efficiency, which deliberately reduces how much energy is consumed).

In the same way, this sector could, for example, look to combat problems from the China “ban” not only by improving quality of waste streams and supporting (or moving into) onshore reprocessing, but also by profitably helping reduce the amount of waste that needs to be recycled.

For example, novel collection, consolidation and redistribution services could be offered that enable the cycling of reusable products and components, not just recoverable or disposable materials. 

Auckland has taken the first step in this direction, with collection contractors for kerbside bulky goods doing a first pass of the clean-up stream and delivering salvageable items to a “triage” warehouse where reuse/repair charities take items to on-sell/redistribute. In this vein, e-waste recycling facilities could add preliminary processes to salvage reusable components before shredding items to recover raw materials, while food waste collections could partner with food charities to hand over edible food before recycling the rest.

And these are just the beginning of what could be. As described by the UK Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, there is a chance for “a generational change” resulting in a sector that would look very different to the one that has recently been overseeing a shift from “landfill-led to resource recovery-led”.

Such revolutionary changes require both vision and investment. The National Waste Policy could have been a vehicle for both. There is still scope for such. The eighth Meeting of Environment Ministers agreed to the National Waste Policy, while also acknowledging the urgent need for a strong, national action plan with robust targets, milestones and appropriate funding to underpin and guide implementation of the policy. 

To be developed by the next meeting in mid 2019, the action plan should include a strengthened focus on support for industry development, which could include beginning these step-change transitions.

However, the sector could also take a leadership role in developing this broader vision for itself and lead this year’s conversation on how an Australian circular society could be about so much more than just better waste management and recovery. 

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