Changing the course to bring prosperity – Australia

Changing the course to bring prosperity – Australia

Posted on January 31, 2023 by DrRossH in Plastic Recycling


The year 2022 has brought about a change in government and will quite possibly bring about a positive shift in approach to our sector. It is hoped that this shift is the result of growing knowledge and understanding of the complexity and importance of the waste sector following many difficult years, so that we can move on from simply thinking convenience is paramount. We need to stop approaching WARR as the final recipient of the buck, where our sector is viewed as the fixer and funder of end-of-life materials and move towards shared responsibility and integrated planning. This must be coupled with appropriate levels of funding and policy if we are determined to achieve our shared goal of a thriving people, planet, prosperity. 

In October, we had the first Environment Minister’s Meeting (EMM) in 18 months. On the agenda were a number of important items that would drive the success of our industry, including national harmonisation, creating and strengthening product stewardship schemes, the possible expansion of container deposit schemes, addressing PFAS as an input in some items, and packaging (yet again)  –although it is unclear what reform is planned there, or how many times we need to discuss a scheme that is clearly not working as-is.  

We also saw for the first time a concerted effort at developing genuine circular policy actions at the national level, with an agreement to ‘work with the private sector to design out waste and pollution, keep materials in use, and foster markets to achieve a circular economy by 2030’. 

This is a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG). However, it is exactly what Australia needs. To move up the chain, we need to share the responsibility of both designing out waste and creating markets and to do this, all stakeholders in the supply chain and our governments must come to the table.

The data nerds out there know that we are long past being able to rely on business as usual to achieve the 2030 targets that have been set, let alone the recently adopted carbon targets. 

The reality is that despite the valiant efforts by councils and industry, we continue to dispose of 27 million tonnes annually. Not only is this a colossal volume, but there is also no sign of relief; on the contrary, we may see a slight increase this year. 

Meanwhile, the average national recycling rate remains stubbornly at 60 per cent, meaning we have a very long way to go in the next 90 months to hit both 80 per cent (as per the national target) and 10 per cent reduction of waste generated target. 

So, what needs to change? As a start, we really need to put the foot down and accelerate our recycling economy, which would greatly assist in our move towards the circular economy touted at the EMM. 

Read more: Nominations open for 2023 waste awards

In simple terms, we need a system that manages input, output, and offtake – a system that has clear pathways to bring materials back into the productive economy. 

What this calls for is both the infrastructure and the markets to buy back the material we make. As it stands, we are about 14 million tonnes of infrastructure short if we want to hit the 80 per cent recovery target, which equates to $14 billion of infrastructure investment and 14 million tonnes of demand for recycled products. Big numbers? Yes. But we are never going to hit our 2030 targets without both infrastructure and market demand.

China’s National Sword was a massive shock to the system – and not just kerbside – yet, to this day, we are still adamant about taking the ‘easy’ way out by passing the cost to another player in the chain then burying our heads in the sand by simply placing materials in a bin and believing someone else will solve it! This is wish cycling.

After all these years surely the penny has dropped that adding more products to kerbside for example, will not result in increased demand for recycled materials. If anything, it may have real impacts on contamination levels that would inevitably affect the commercials of operating WARR facilities. While we can wax lyrical about source separation yielding the best quality return of material, doing so for all our material streams is not always realistic. Take for example C&D, where there is a need for a commingled system and a transfer station network for sorting. 

The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all materials we produce and consume. Rather, we need to take stock of the different material streams in circulation to develop an evidence-based fates and flows approach to managing infrastructure as well as a market plan. 

We must prioritise delivery based on greatest need and impact, as well as nexus to markets. We also need to realise that every client for collection is also a customer for our products.

Both the federal and state governments truly need to step up on this one as we are running out of time. We do not want to continue being the laggards in material management and be fourth in the world again in 2023 in marking Earth Overshoot Day. 

I often point to the EU and UK as regions we could learn from but right here at home, Victoria has shown what a concerted effort in this space looks like with the formation of Ecologiq, which is an initiative that all states could follow while fast tracking other endeavours. 

We also need the NWAP to reinstate real numbers and dollars to back the recycled content target; this is one way to drive demand and commitment from all levels for government and industry to buy their resources back. And it’s time for the government to leverage the tools they have to increase market demand – at least for a time to grow the appetite for recycled content – by, for example, putting in a virgin material tax, rolling out enforceable sustainable design standards, or developing more extended producer responsibility schemes. 

Collectively, we have the will to move but we need to change lanes – turning away from BAU – and we need to do this fast if we have any hope of hitting our 2030 targets.