At Waste 2021, CSIRO’s HEINZ Schandl presented on social theory, public policy and the circular economy.
If Australia were to shift towards a circular economy – one focused on more than simply resource recovery but the entire material lifecycle – it could unlock billions of dollars in lost revenue.
This is according to Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, which in January released its National Circular Economy Roadmap.
The roadmap found that the capacity of the global ecosystem to absorb growing waste generation is limited, while identifying opportunities across the whole supply chain of how waste can be avoided, and materials can be re-used or recycled.
Heinz Schandl, CSIRO Senior Principal Scientist and National Circular Economy Roadmap Project Leader, explains that Australia’s traditional take-make-dispose consumption pattern is hitting two walls: ever more expensive primary materials and unacceptable ways of dealing with waste.
He adds that innovation is crucial to overcoming these obstacles and realising Australia’s largest economic gains.
For the past 20 years, Schandl’s research has focused on providing a knowledge base on natural resource use and resource efficiency including its history, socioeconomic drivers and likely trajectory.
He explains that his sociology background enables him to simultaneously identify the determinants of accelerating resource use, while describing potential institutional and governance responses to expand the global economy and human well-being with environmental limits.
At Waste 2021, which returned to Coffs Harbour’s Opal Cove Resort this May, Schandl presented a keynote address, during which he discussed social theory, public policy and the circular economy.
“When we look at the circular economy, we often talk about waste management, resource recovery and the ability to keep materials in circulation – collecting and sorting them and getting them back into manufacturing as a secondary input,” Schandl says.
“But I think we need to take a broader view – focusing on the way we manage materials in society and how that links to the way we work, the way we use technology and the way we do business.
“It’s about a fundamental restructuring of the system in which we consume and produce in order to achieve different outcomes for the way we use materials, and in that context, how much waste and emissions we can reduce in the first place.”
Ultimately, Schandl wants to extend our perspective from an end-of-life waste management and resource recovery lens, to a whole of supply chain view of sustainable materials management, and how that links to the economy and the services that resources provided society.
He explains, however, that the end-of-life focus is understandable, as today’s waste is in front of our eyes.
“Waste managers are looking at already accumulating stockpiles and thinking, what are we going to do about them?
“I don’t want to downplay the opportunities that exist from the end-of-life perspective. When you have sorted, clean material streams, you can add value, and this is something we need to engage in.
“But we also need to graduate to a discussion of new materials, products and processes that can substitute for a material that is not going to be beneficial for the entire supply chain.”
Schandl, who has worked extensively in the field of sustainable materials management internationally, emphasises that society can provide services in a different way.
He has worked with the United Nations Environment Program, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific and the Asian Development Bank, as well as recently on the United Nations Commission for Regional Development in the context of the Three R Forum for Asia and the Pacific.
“We’re looking at a planet with a growing population and increasing living standards in many parts of the world, particularly Asia and the Pacific, so we need to start thinking about closed loop urban and industrial systems,” he says.
Closed loop systems will allow for the organisation of cities and services that capitalise on the benefits received from materials taken from the environment, Schandl explains.
He adds that this in turn will provide environmental benefits, as materials management effects everything from climate change and biodiversity to resource depletion.
“My background is from Europe, and when I came to Australia and started at CSIRO 15 years ago, Europe was starting to move into an understanding of how consumption and production processes significantly impact our environment and social outcomes,” Schandl says.
“In Australia, we were still focusing on biodiversity, water and electricity policy at that time. But what is happening now is that Australia is very rapidly catching up with international trends.”
For over 20 years, both Europe and Japan have had high-level sustainable materials management strategies and policies in place, Schandl says, while China also has a circular economy policy.
“Everyone is moving in that direction, and I always try to make the argument that when we just focus on the end-of-life, we’re not only misunderstanding the problem, but limiting our ability to reduce waste from the start and losing significant economic opportunities,” he explains.
“As we graduate from recycling to new materials and products, and finally to closed loop cities and industries, economic value grows by an order of magnitude at each of those steps.”
According to Schandl, the importance of events such as Waste 2021 is the ability to merge different knowledge bases and collaborate towards sustainable solutions.
“One of the questions we have to ask ourselves as scientists is, what is our contribution? We contribute to innovation through new technology, processes and materials that can then be commercialised,” he says.
“And that commercialisation is constrained or enabled by socioeconomic and policy factors.”
By collaborating with regulators, industry and the community, organisations like CSIRO can develop the data and metrics to understand resource flow and how circular the Australian economy is, which in turn underscores the development of policy and strategic investments.
“My perspective is not purely waste management. At Waste 2021 there were more knowledgeable people in the room regarding the ins and outs of the problem, but I think the event allows us to come together and find a broader perspective,” Schandl says.