From the CEO’s desk – turning community communication and engagement on its head

4 April 2022

I know that I am preaching to the converted when I say we need a concerted effort here in Australia across the entire supply chain if we are serious about moving towards a circular and low carbon economy. And given the wide variety of material streams and product designs that currently exist, we need a robust, holistic, and strategically planned waste management and resource recovery (WARR) system that considers the path of materials in accord with the hierarchy.

While this principle of creating a systems-based approach towards WARR that is based on the waste management hierarchy has been widely and deeply discussed within industry, it is becoming increasingly clear that the  engagement with community and businesses may not adequately capture the importance of considered consumption (including avoidance), appropriate design and material selection (e.g., no hazardous inclusions), and taking actual responsibility for decisions in relation to end-to-end material management. To date, the costs and impacts of these have often been “out of sight, out of mind” for many as they have been passed down the supply chain and are not yielding the behaviour change that we need as an ecosystem.

A good example of this is the new national campaign, “ReMade in Australia”. We agree that the campaign is a “step in giving Australians the confidence to recycle more and buy products manufactured with recycled content”, as per the Prime Minister’s statement. However, the campaign is concerning as it refers to materials as rubbish (as opposed to resources), undermining their value and placing all responsibility on end-of-pipe, with no consideration on start of pipe design or educating about consumption. Our industry excels at solving these recycling challenges, but we are never going to move to a circular economy if we continue to say buy mindlessly, then chuck it and we will solve.

While the WARR industry is brilliant at what it does, there is absolutely a need to continue building the WARR ecosystem so that it effectively and successfully manages materials we receive according to the priorities of the hierarchy. It also continues to be our mission to drive awareness and acceptance of the secondary raw materials that we produce and the remanufacturing that can occur with these, in order to grow market demand and create Australian jobs. However, messaging to-date struggles to raise the need to consider our consumption habits and take responsibility for the waste material we create (whether as an individual, company, facility, etc., beyond the collection and disposal costs), including where discarded materials and products end up once discarded.

It may be time for our industry to turn the conversation with the broader community on its head to achieve the behaviour change we need. Material management is vitally important – design, avoidance, recycling, remanufacturing, take-up of recycled products, etc. – but more important (as per the hierarchy) is the consumption and avoidance piece. How do we better educate and inform community that they are creating waste by purchasing and then disposing of these products at end-of-life? And how can we shift their thinking so that community considers avoiding where possible at first instance, or purchasing with reuse, repair, and refurbish in mind? How do we join the dots on the fact that as the second highest generator of waste globally, we can make real changes that will affect how we manage the planet, how we move to net zero, and the jobs we can create in Australia?

Communication, education and behavioural change campaigns to-date have focused on a number of vital issues, such as ensuring that the right materials go in the right bins, reducing and managing food waste, as well avoiding single-use plastics. These are all important in our efforts to engage and drive better and more sustainable material management. But how do we get people to think about what they’re buying above all else?

WMRR is seeking a breakthrough in community education and behavioural change, in order for a long-lasting generational change to occur, where as a community, design, material selection, avoidance, repair, refurbish, and reuse will be front and centre of our minds when we make a purchase, understanding and remembering that end-of-life materials are created by our consumption of our products, and that we need to take ownership of these materials.

We need your help to crack this nut.

Do you have a communication and engagement strategy that will cause the penny to drop about design and consumption? Do you know of a project that has achieved these outcomes that we are seeking? Have you heard of, or developed successful tools and models that have seen your community ramp up avoidance, reuse and/or repair?

We’d like to hear from you and have developed this survey to gather your thoughts, ideas, and insights to inform WMRR’s future advocacy work and webinar series. Let’s take the hierarchy back to the centre of conversations, not just within industry, but importantly, in the communities that we service.