As I sat at my computer to write this column, I started by looking back at my final piece for 2022. I outlined three (3) major challenges and hopes for 2023. 

First, a nationally agreed definition of waste. Second, real demand for the recyclate and materials that our industry produces. Third, a plea that we would see some real leadership (and that includes courage) from our policymakers in 2023.

Regrettably as I write, it’s a cross for points one (1) and two (2) but a hopeful tick for point three (3).

Why hope for three (3)? Well, we have seen some murmurings in relation to actual regulation in areas such as chemicals, packaging and recycled content, though we have not yet seen detail. However, a speech at the start of November from Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers outlining a fresh push to meet Australia’s emission reduction targets has given me optimism. 

The fact that our essential industry is being discussed by the Treasurer and also Energy Minister Chris Bowen, means possibly (finally) we are being seen as the essential industry we are and one that needs whole of government attention and support – not simply from the Environment Department. 

While the Federal Treasurer said the Government would not go down the route of designing what he called ‘an Inflation Reduction Act Lite’, which is US President Joe Biden’s ‘green deal’ linking action on climate change with economic growth, Mr Chalmers made very positive moves in the right direction.

He said: “Our plan will be ambitious but uniquely Australian focused on Australia’s strengths… our focus is on the development of industries that diversify our economy and make Australia more competitive in global markets, in an enduring and sustainable way.” In what can only be described as music to the ears of the WARR sector, the Treasurer said he will refocus the Productivity Commission to ensure Australia realises the economic potential presented by the net zero transition.

WMRR has consistently called for the sustainability to be embedded right across government – not just the focus of environment departments.  What we do and who we impact goes right across government at all levels. We might be finally making some headway. We can only hope that this thinking will quickly become business as usual for government at all levels in Australia in 2024.

Possibly we need to thank Joe Biden for this. As The Australian’s Chief National Reporter Tom Dusevic wrote, with the President’s game changing Inflation Reduction Act “Joe Biden has forced the rest of the rich world to respond.” 

And while that is no doubt true, it still took leadership from the Australian Treasurer to acknowledge that further action is required here if Australia is to meet its net zero targets.

However, in my view we can’t just rely on the market to get it right. As President Biden and before him the EU showed, government intervention is required given the clear evidence in Australia to date that voluntary targets without regulation do not get us to where we need to be!

It takes courage for a politician to level with the public, especially when it involves missing targets. The fact is Australia is not on track to hit emission or methane reduction targets, just as we are not on track to hit our resource recovery targets. 

Arguably, the Treasurer has become the first politician from a major party in quite a while to utter out loud what has been whispered in the corridors of power and industry for years.

In WMRR’s view, reaching net zero and resource recovery targets are inexorably linked, and the country can get a two (2) for one (1) deal here. If we really want to ‘get with the programme’, we can also link biodiversity targets too – as our sector is integral to not using virgin (linear) materials and achieving these too - a three (3) for one deal if you like!

It is abundantly clear the WARR sector can and must play a vital role in Australia meeting its target. Every day in Australia, we are seeing evidence of the damage our current, linear economic system causes - including pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Australia needs to move away from our current attitude of “make, use once, and dispose” to one where we instead “make, use, repair, recycle and remake”.  

By valuing everything, harnessing the full potential of our planet’s resources, and phasing out waste wherever possible, we can move to a new era of sustainability. 

The other uncomfortable truth (I would say ‘inconvenient’ truth- but someone used that already) is that as part of this shift, we need to tackle the elephant in the room – consumption – something there is very little willingness to do.  Watch out for discussions at COP28 on this!

As we head in to 2024 and the Federal Government embarking on sustainable finance, net zero sector plans and our targets still in place but off track, the reality is Australia needs a herculean effort to build resource recovery infrastructure to handle an additional 10 million tonnes of material in the next seven (7) years across the nation if we are to meet our 80% resource recovery target.

To achieve this, we need to stop ‘waste’ moving around and a commensurate increase in the uptake of products made from recycled Australian materials (not simply imported) recyclate from both business and government. We need to urgently eliminate the stigma associated with circular products which are presumed to be of lower quality to more traditional, linear (virgin) products.

The lack of systems thinking by some governments is making it harder and more expensive to recover recycled materials. The refusal to turn the tap off on dangerous products being placed on our market, not addressing the economics of resource recovery, and restrictions on exporting into the global market while failing to prioritise local recycled materials all continue to reinforce the fragility of the waste and resource recovery sector in Australia and the need for bold systems thinking that finally shifts the dial. For example, we need governments to expand extended producer responsibility to ensure material put to market is safe and easily recoverable by our sector.

Also, it makes no sense that other countries banned PFAS up to two (2) decades ago, yet here we are still talking about a ban coming into effect in two (2) years’ time and only for three (3) of the more than 4,000 types. We are playing catch up. As the old saying goes, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly – so Australia must ban them all.

As we hit the end of 2023, and another disappointing outcome from the Environment Ministers’ Meeting in November, I do lament that we have not seen the “regulation” promised. 

I strongly believe Australia really is at a crossroads when it comes to waste and resource recovery policy. In 2024 will we finally see the national understanding and leadership required to value all material, design it well to maximise life, manage carbon and methane, and capitalise on local investment so that we can create Australian jobs, or will we continue with rhetoric and platitudes?

I really hope the former, as I know that we can be the solution to so much of the current climate challenges, as the clock keeps ticking and the planet keeps warming.

The time for action is now.