CEO Report: Inside Waste December 2021 - January 2022 Issue

From the CEO’s desk

How different would our world be if we asked ourselves, “will the bin be the final destination” each time we made a purchase? This is the message that WMRR is spreading as part of National Recycling Week.

Recycling is a worthwhile and valuable endeavour, and the message was loud and clear in 2018 that the community values it as well. However, we can go one step further from only “sorting” for recycling to seeking out and buying products made from Australian recycled materials. And there is no time like the present, especially when we consider how far we’ve come in thinking about sustainability, climate change, and resource efficiency.

On WMRR’s part, we believe there is a role for us as an industry to better articulate, promote, and educate the community and businesses we work with on the far-reaching benefits, pathways, and opportunities to buy products from Australian recycled materials.

The why

There are multiple benefits to keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, including reducing emissions, as well as economic incentives that WMRR has consistently been highlighting, such as the opportunity to develop new domestic remanufacturing and industrial design industries that would boost local economies and provide jobs – three (3) times as many - to the community.

Perhaps the missing piece here is that community may not associate waste as actually being a raw material that has value beyond its initial life and can be used (if designed well) as a manufacturing input, which would reduce the need for extracting raw materials that comes with significant energy and emission impact. For example, recycled aluminium results in energy and GHG savings of 95% and 92% respectively.  

Climate change awareness and a desire for action is another area that must be weaponised and educated on; many may not realise the tremendous carbon benefits that come with recycling, reuse, repair, and remanufacturing. The European Commission has undertaken significant work in this space and has found that the CO2-e benefits of recycling one (1) million tonnes of plastics is equivalent to taking one (1) million cars off the road. Meanwhile, recycling glass saves 87% CO2-e and 82% energy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in a World Economic Forum report, estimated that global materials cost savings alone could exceed US$1 trillion.

At home, KPMG has estimated a potential cumulative net economic benefit of $A210 billion by 2050 from eight (8) initiatives to increase circularity across the food, transport and built environment sectors, and PWC has estimated a direct economic benefit of $A1.9 trillion over 20 years and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 165 megatonnes (Mt) per year by 2040 from a broad range of initiatives.

These are compelling figures and ones that are easily understood by the community, both from an environmental perspective and as an economic incentive. Energy savings? More jobs? Lower carbon emissions? Why not!

The how

This is where it can get challenging. The main message is that we are simply consuming and throwing away too much and our first and foremost focus must be on avoidance. This would go a long way in driving down waste generation rates (and take Australia off the podium when it comes to both consumption and waste generation) but there is also much to be done about the products we are offered, and the materials that are currently circulating in the economy.

In 2020, WMRR hosted its inaugural Buy Recycled expo as part of the WARRSA conference in Adelaide. It was an eye-opening experience for many attendees who had some but not extensive knowledge of Australia’s very own network of recycled product manufacturers. There are many remanufacturers and users of recycled materials who have done a great job in promoting the use of Australian recycled content, for example, makers of park benches and playground equipment. But more needs to be said about the rest of the recycling and remanufacturing industry – we need to be shouting about our processes, technologies, skills, and products from the rooftops so that consumers can make informed and sustainable choices. We also need to call out the ongoing use of virgin material  when there are genuine recycled alternatives readily available.

If consumers were to exert their purchasing power at the retail level by thinking about, and then sourcing and buying products made from Australian recycled material, we would stand a far better chance at influencing the design of products so that not only are they truly recyclable (and not technically recyclable), but that they are also made from recycled content.

Of course, there is a piece of work to be done to assist consumers because we still do not have clear and consistent labelling about what is made from Australian recycled material, let alone the amount of recyclable materials they contain. The federal government can play a clear role here with a simple, concise, and consistent labelling system, making it much easier for the consumer to buy Australian recycled materials and in so doing, drive market demand for recycled products and the paradigm shift in material management that we have been advocating for. Surely, this is not a big ask?

Global factors such as China’s National Sword policy and the resulting waste export bans have given Australia a much-needed push in finding domestic solutions for our materials. I am proud that our WARR industry has and continues to invest and grow both its technical capability as well as capacity to meet this demand. We know – and I have been banging on the drum for years – what the role of governments and manufacturers are and while we advocate for change in those areas, it would serve us well to think about how we can help consumers use their purchasing power to move from the traditional take-make-dispose model to one that is circular - where we are constantly reminding ourselves that the bin is not the final destination so that over time, looking out for and buying Australian recycled products becomes second nature.