Circular Economy, Features, Landfills

Accelerating recyclables away from landfill

By Helen Millicer
With two years under its belt the Albanese government has only one year to go until the election. As the Prime Minister has flagged, the nation stands at a crucial crossroad for its economic and environmental prospects. The government already has a full agenda of committed reforms, including establishing a national EPA and cutting emissions. Having conducted many reviews, it also has a full dance card of additional potential reforms. The question is how many of these reviews will result in meaningful reforms before the election? What are the priorities? And is there sufficient support for these reforms to be widely accepted for Australia to achieve circularity, low emissions, and a higher productivity future? Australia is among the worst performing nations on high consumption, high emissions and high waste to landfill.

It is a monumental task to turn around our lax systems that enable this high level of waste and loss. This is also a challenge at a time of high living costs and growing social inequity.

Read more: Can landfill lead a transition to a circular economy

Voluntary vs mandatory levers and tipping point for success
Research has shown that Australia has voluntary programs with relatively weak impact that mean even good initiatives struggle to succeed, let alone pass the tipping point to become mainstream practice.

The Enabling Design for Environmental Good report, completed in 2022 and published in 2023 by the Australian Government, has recommended and informed a raft of policy and regulatory reviews. Co-authored by RMIT, Arcadis and myself, we noted poor policies, economics, regulations and training/education as four levers requiring attention. It focused on four priority sectors (building, electronics, textiles and plastics). Our 10 recommended actions are all now included in national government policy reviews: product design, recyclability, standardisation, stewardship, procurement, traceability, supply chains, training and reporting (See figure 1).

Image: Helen Millicer

Positively, the reforms are starting to flow. The Government has just announced that a mandatory Environmentally Sustainable Procurement (ESP) Policy will come into effect on Australian Government procurement from 1 July 2024. Starting with construction, it will encompass furniture, ICT and textiles from July 2025. Notably this step has received little if any response or praise from industry sectors such as civil construction or building.

Interestingly, the calls for such improvements and regulations tend to come from industry groups, in waste and recycling.

ACOR’s recent incisive report specifically on stewardship schemes list six improvements desired by its recycler members, principally via regulated mandatory membership, improved product design, governance, and reporting.

To see how far we need to go to just catch up, it is useful to compare our policies and programs with both Canada and Germany.

Comparative Analysis with Germany and Canada

Image: Helen Millicer

Table 1 provides a sobering comparative snapshot of sample recycling and recovery targets. Germany has already reached their 2025 target of 55 per cent of recycling material back into product again. It is important to note EU countries report both recovery and recycling, and recycling is the metric of material made back into product. Australia does not report or measure this in any sector other than in packaging.

As these tables show there is room for improvement in Australia’s strategies, policies, economics, regulations and industry training/reporting.

Germany is a leader with a strong focus on eco-design products, manufacturing, repair, resource recovery and recycling. This is partly because Germany is determined to remain a highly efficient, diversified economy and global leader in innovation. Germany’s success can be attributed to its combination of strong policies, strategic plans that include phased landfill bans, mandatory programs including green procurement, labelling and EPR stewardship, strong public-private strategic planning, supply chain collaboration and investment, as well as public engagement.

Case Study 1
Hamburg City State in Germany has implemented an effective sustainability agenda, including a mandatory green procurement scheme and strong industry-government collaborative strategies, partnerships and professional training on circularity and GHG reductions. They are part of a nationwide network of free drop-off recycling facilities, and national laws require manufacturers to receive products at end-of-life, which is helping drive better eco-design.

Case Study 2
In 2023, Kiel was certified as Germany’s first Zero Waste City as it progresses to implement 107 innovative measures to reduce waste. These include provision of grants of up to €200 to residents to opt for cloth nappies over disposable ones, distribution of free reusable shopping bags, and a requirement for retail and restaurants to offer reusable vs single-use containers and packaging. The city will be audited by the EU program again in three years to qualify for re-certification.

With its similar landmass, population and provincial management of circularity and waste, Canada serves as a valuable benchmark comparison to Australia. Yet, Canada still surpasses Australia by advancing initiatives such as promoting circularity, remanufacturing and value-retention policies and systems. This progress is evidenced by the development of a national eco-design strategy, mandatory green procurement and the establishment of federal-level rights to repair laws.

Case Study
In 2020, Ontario implemented Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements through the broad Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations under the province’s own Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. Producers responsible for collecting and recycling goods at the end of their lifecycle have the option to recover these costs by imposing visible “resource recovery fees” on consumers.

Fast-track circularity: keeping Australia globally competitive
Timing is tight. There are several reasons for Australia to quickly switch policy and regulatory paths from linear with high losses, to circular and retaining value. Aside from Australian environmental, social and economic benefits (retraining, diversified economy, etc) the fact is this is a global movement. From Japan to Malaysia, from EU to US, circular economy and low emissions are now integral to national and industry strategies that address supply, demand, national sovereign risk and provide for stable societies and government. National sovereignty competition appears to be growing to counterbalance globalised unchecked environmental pollution.

Image: Helen Millicer

Increasingly policies, laws and financial instruments are being used in these nations toward those nations, manufacturers and brands that fail to meet environmental standards.

This new order for a safe climate includes the development of new trading rules (like EU Carbon Pollution Adjustment Mechanism), and financial incentives (like the US Inflation Reduction Act stimulating major investment in clean tech). Australia must develop clear industry strategies that integrate both circularity and low emissions and gain the backing of industry groups.

Image: Helen Millicer

In conclusion, our success will not come with continued lax targets, voluntary measures, or by confusing recycling for circularity, or even with a mountain of good will and public education programs. Our success will come from robust policies, firm, specific and equitable mandatory regulations, broad-scale financial incentives and levies, and workforce education and training on circularity and zero emissions.

Helen Millicer, GAICD, Churchill Fellow, is CEO of One Planet Consulting.

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