CEO Report: Inside Waste August - September 20 Issue


What’s new in WARR? Well, since the last CEO report, money - and quite a lot of it! July has been a time of significant financial support from the Australian government, the like of which has never been seen from the federal government. 

The sustained enthusiasm and commitment to our waste and resource recovery industry means that for the first time in a long time, it finally feels as if we are moving onto a path towards creating a more resourceful Australia.

WMRR absolutely welcomes the rapid succession of funding pledges announced, from the $190 million Recycling Mordernisation Fund targeted at COAG waste export ban materials, to the $20 million Product Stewardship Investment Fund, $24.5 million on data, and $35 million for the National Waste Action Plan targets.

As we move through (I wish I could say “out” of) COVID-19, this funding will prove vital in providing confidence to industry to invest in infrastructure for the materials that will be subject to the COAG export bans commencing in 2021. There is no doubt that the road to recovery for Australia and our industry does include shifting to greater on-shore manufacturing, which will (ideally) come in large part from the secondary materials that we as an essential industry provide.

These announcements are terrific and welcome; however, funding alone will not get us “there”. Where is “there” I hear you wonder? I wonder that too sometimes. Despite all of the recent talk from governments at all levels of creating a circular economy, I can’t find a clear vision for our country, or what that means for our essential industry or others, including the community, which makes it very difficult to actually know what to do to get there - where is the roadmap?

I tend to lean towards the definition of a circular economy espoused by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, which is one that is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. For this to become a reality, it means we need to look at how we design the things we make (waste and pollution are a direct consequence of what we design and the materials we select). We need to design things that we can use and re-use, repair, and remanufacture, and if we can no longer do these, we need to be able to get the material back into circulation (like food into compost) rather than simply disposing.

We need an economy (and a mindset) that is not built on extracting primary materials but rather, one that recognises the value of these materials and the benefits that secondary materials create when circulating to both the economy (creating jobs) and the environment (e.g. carbon mitigation).   

Why then, despite the ongoing championing of the need to create a circular economy, do we still only seem to talk about – also evident in the legislation industry operates within – waste? Just cast your eye to terms such as “end of waste codes” and “waste-derived materials”; it’s all about waste management. Waste is something that is “eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process” - it is not something upon which one builds an economy!

So, what do we need to do? We need to rapidly shift the paradigm and language. There is no doubt that we are facing one of the most challenging periods of Australian history and what we have seen is some of the greatest cooperation between levels of government. We need to take this cooperation (which is not the same as one level of government telling the other what to do) and move forward together on key tasks, ideally using the funding committed to the National Action Plan by the federal government to creating a circular economy.

Where do we start? Let’s stop talking “waste”! Perhaps the first port of call is the proposed 2020 COAG export and Product Stewardship legislation, which should be about the responsible management of material (and products) to ensure they do not have adverse environmental impacts, and not about managing waste. The language needs to change at all levels in order to recognise the value of these materials and gain the behavior change we both want and need in Australia.

Beyond the language, we must also fix Australia’s disparate regulatory system that struggles with moving materials through the supply chain. We need to develop a consistent national approach (supported by a national regulatory framework) that ensures resources can move through the supply chain and continue to be re-used, repaired, and ultimately re-manufactured. Perhaps we all need to look to what Victoria is proposing with its General Environmental Duties, which attempt to better manage that change of state as material moves through the chain. 

Australia’s Acts are not (at least they should not be) about managing discarded products and materials; rather, they should be about the design of materials and how they are managed through their lifecycle, and the bans are about how materials that can be used in secondary manufacturing are managed. As such, these Acts should allow Australia to recognise the way forward for managing materials positively, placing the responsibility on generators to design and manage these materials and products in a way that makes them easy to be circulated.   

We need to rapidly move the focus away from “waste” and instead on resources and supply chain management; we are already far behind in the world’s quest to drive a circular economy and unless a paradigm shift occurs, we will only be driven further from our international counterparts. It is time to take bold and urgent action as we all know that business as usual is not going to get us there. We need a certain and quick shift of mindset and we need it now, in order to invest and get secondary infrastructure moving quickly (fast-tracked even).

Let’s finally get a standard national language for our industry that moves away from waste, with a certain national framework that drives and supports circularity and emphasises design. And while we are at it, let’s be really bold and call out the role of the generator (as that is where the pollution and environmental impact begins), bring them to the table, and have real financial responsibilities placed at this point in the supply chain to manage materials, including the costs of circulating (and when that can’t happen, disposal). What a step change it would be to finally have a Product Stewardship Act in Australia that is about producer responsibility.

A key takeaway of the recently released Breaking the Plastic Wave Report is that we urgently need to rethink what is put on the market, while rapidly increasing our ability to keep materials circulating; we cannot recycle our way out of this alone - we need to raise the level of ambition and match it with urgent action. In the wise words of Dame Ellen, it’s time to eliminate, circulate and innovate!