Circular Economy, Opinion

How to drive a successful circular economy in Australia

The National Waste Report 2018 indicates that more than 67 million tonnes (Mt) of waste, including 14.2 Mt of organics, 6.3 Mt of hazardous waste and 5.6 Mt of paper and cardboard, is generated by Australians each year.

A lot of that waste could potentially be reused or recycled, but millions of tonnes still end up in landfill each year. To minimise waste heading to landfill, MRA Consulting Group’s Mike Ritchie said there needs to be a greater drive to a circular economy. Ritchie explained how this can be achieved.

If we want more recycling, then as a country we need to demand more action from the state and local governments and businesses, and through them households, consumers and individuals.

The bottom line is coffee cup recycling, plastic bags bans and prohibitions of party balloons are a creative start, but they will make almost zero difference to rates of landfill. We need to deal with the problem of sorting and separating mixed waste in a structural way. We also need to encourage more source separation.

To put the scale of the problem into stark relief, all plastic bags sold in Australia per year represent just 0.12 per cent of waste to landfill by weight. One thousandth of the landfill waste stream. So even if we banned all single use plastic bags (which we should as they are a litter problem), we would still landfill 99.9 per cent of what we are landfilling today.

So, where should we focus?

Organics (food, garden waste, timber and cardboard) represent more than 50 per cent of landfilled waste. It also contributes 3 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If we diverted all organics from landfill into compost, we could supply over 7 million tonnes of compost per year to Australia’s farmers – lessening the effect of this crippling drought and helping to rebuild degraded soils.

That is where we need to start. Recycling organics is the simplest, fastest and most effective action to drive a circular economy that we could do today.

How, I hear you say?

Here is a list of what other countries have done:

  1. Three bin collections at homes; food and garden, recycling and garbage.
  2. Compulsory food collection from large food generators (food courts, restaurants, commercial kitchens).
  3. Banning unprocessed organics from landfill or requiring processing of all organic streams.
  4. Taxing or pricing organics disposal to landfill.
  5. Subsidising separated collection of organics.
  6. Building processing technology to process separated organics (usually compost or anaerobic digestion) or MBT for unseparated streams.
  7. Leave it to residents/consumers/households to do small things voluntarily.

There is no need for rocket science. The mechanisms are known. But we need government to act. You and I as individuals and consumers can do a bit, but not the big actions listed above. We can do number seven and we should.

But actions 1-6 are up to government, to set the price and regulatory settings to encourage investment and job creation moving big tonnes to composting and anaerobic digestion.

The next Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) is in November 2019. We need to ensure MEM addresses organics amid the myriad of other waste issues taking up their attention.