This time last year, I sat at my desk (a rare occurrence) reflecting on what has been achieved since the first 2018 Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) in April, which tried in part to address the impacts of China’s National Sword policy. When I wrote that column, Environment Ministers were due to meet again in December 2018 and now, I write this column just days before the first and only MEM for 2019
How much has been achieved or changed since then? Have we moved forward at all? In some ways, we have. For instance, we have for the first time in our industry’s history, two more federal ministers with a role in our portfolio – Australia’s very first Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction, Trevor Evans, and Energy Minister Angus Taylor. But things still appear to be moving at snail speed (assuming snails have speed?).
Our essential waste and resource recovery sector continues to be in the media spotlight, which can be a boon or a bane but one thing it’s done is put our sector firmly in the line of sight of our Prime Minister. In fact, the PM has made a personal commitment to tackle the challenges we’re facing, announcing at the August 2019 COAG meeting a ban on waste exports. The issue however, is that while industry supports the ban, given the opportunity it presents to create domestic demand for post-consumer recyclate, the announcement was possibly made to subdue negative media and appear to be addressing plastic pollution as seen in the PM heading off to meet with our Pacific neighbours, and it appears that there may have been little consideration of the elements that are needed for the ban to succeed (happy to be proven wrong!).
Over the last 12 months, each jurisdiction has released a multitude – and we do mean a massive number – of policies, regulations, and strategies for consultation, with the stated intent of building a circular economy, which WMRR has responded to, as well as inquiry after inquiry. Yet ‘business as usual’ – a linear (take, make, dispose) economy appears to be the path upon which Australia remains despite this stated intent.
WMRR has spent the last 12 months closely engaging with federal and state government officers and Environment Ministers. If you go to our website (www.wmrr.asn.au), you’ll see that we’ve been providing detailed advice to governments by way of policy submissions, letters, workshops, forums, briefings, industry reference group meetings, and more. Our messages have been consistent but one thing is increasingly becoming clear, government may be struggling to understand how to genuinely create a circular economy in Australia!
Areas that were discussed at the December 2018 MEM that would assist in creating a level playing field and a national approach to resource recovery upon which a circular economy can be built, such as harmonsiation, investment, and infrastructure, have not been progressed at all. Let’s be clear- we can’t have eight states and territories going around in their own circles- we need one national circular economy!
This is all the more concerning given the federal government has indicated its intention to commence the export bans from mid-2020, without any real plans or funding to address local demand for post-consumer recyclate or grow domestic capacity for remanufacturing. WMRR is continuing to work hard to shift our government’s mindset from linear to circular.
So, what is a circular economy and what is industry’s role in it? To date, the emphasis in Australia has been on the waste and resource recovery industry and local government when it comes to managing the materials that society disposes of, and it is these two stakeholders that have been bearing the cost of, and providing the services required to manage “waste”.
A true circular economy however, is one that focuses on material design, avoidance of the creation of waste, and ensuring that polluters/generators are both responsible for some of the cost of managing their materials at end-of-life and reusing post-consumer recyclate in product design. This switch in thinking is key in transitioning to a circular economy. The absence of this paradigm shift is holding Australia back from successfully transitioning in the way we are seeing European and other OECD countries.
While it is frustrating, WMRR will continue to beat the drum to the same tune – we need, as a start, mandated Product Stewardship schemes, let’s start with packaging as the first cab off the rank. After all, majority of the materials that will be captured in the export ban are packaging and we know that the current voluntary packaging scheme and its unenforceable 2025 targets have not worked for years and will continue to be ineffective… Because the scheme is voluntary! Moreover, does anyone else think it is absolutely ridiculous that these targets have been set for 2025 but the ban will commence in 2020? How does that work?
We will also continue to call for policies that will drive demand for post-consumer recyclate (including mandatory government procurement of capital equipment and infrastructure projects that include recycled content), funding models that result in polluter-pays, levers such as tax breaks on recycled products, and enforceable targets with penalties if we miss the mark. We have a number of companies in Australia that work in England and Europe where this is now part of business as usual, we can do this!
The onus must be moved to the generators of products, including packaging, otherwise how will we achieve real change (and create those jobs we all know are out there), when there is no policy or financial imperative to do so? It really is time for federal and state governments to acknowledge that being at the end of the supply chain, the WARR industry cannot be held responsible for creating demand and use of post-consumer recyclate alone. All of this can and should have been captured in the National Waste Policy Action Plan, which remains a missed opportunity with no funding strategy or robust targets (and lots of deferred implementation to come!).
Progress this year has not been what I had aspired for, so I write this thinking maybe 2020 will be the year of funding and implementation as obviously neither the ban nor our essential industry is going away. Let’s hope that the planets finally align and we get to create the even more awesome sector that we know we can be in 2020!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for the hard work that you do in making our sector such a success, it has been a very challenging year for most! I hope that you have a fantastic Christmas with your loved ones and happy new year.