Opinion

Delivering net zero through a circular economy

The overarching themes across the election campaigns are how Australia can manage its increasing cost of living and the need to continue building a resilient economy while we come out of four difficult years. With the number of natural disasters and changing weather patterns, climate change has become a mainstream issue, with major parties turning some of their attention to addressing and managing emissions. The waste and resource recovery (WARR) sector is primed to meet these challenges both economically and environmentally. WMRR has written and spoken to parties and ministers about how we can get cut through to make Australia’s green deal vision a reality. 

The WARR sector has progressed since 2018, when China’s National Sword policy put our industry in the national limelight. It is through the efforts and leadership of, as well as investment by, the current federal government that our industry remains on the national agenda. We must continue to challenge the status quo and rethink our relationship with the planet and climate change. Why? Because we continue to see the devastating consequences of natural disasters in recent years, and we have consistently come in fourth globally to reach our Earth Overshoot Day. Australia is also the second highest generator of waste in the world per capita.

Australia can accelerate towards a net zero, resource efficient future, but an indispensable component of our efforts is a genuine transition to a circular economy. We have called on Australia’s leaders to commit to five policy priorities, that must be underpinned by a commitment to funding by the federal government.  

1. Maximise carbon abatement through WARR
WMRR believes that the sector can reduce its direct emissions as well as double the amount of ACCUs generated. In addition to mitigating our end-of-pipe emissions through landfill diversion, organics processing, and methane recovery, a regenerative economy that is bolstered by re-use, remanufacturing and repair will further enhance the reduction of indirect emissions.

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WMRR has called on the government to ensure that the National Waste Policy recognises the positive carbon mitigation impact of WARR processes, and follow in the EU’s footsteps by requiring sectors to measure carbon emissions across material streams used in the production process throughout a product’s lifecycle. We are also calling for a review of the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee, an extension of the crediting periods for both the Alternative Waste Treatment and Source Separated Organic Waste methodologies, the development of an Energy from Waste methodology and others under the Emissions Reduction Fund, and for financial WARR incentives to reduce Australia’s reliance on virgin materials. 

2. Mandated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
To create a more resource efficient, less carbon intensive economy, and to shift towards a circular economy, we need to start by tackling product design to eliminate waste and pollution at first instance, and to enable efficient processing and recycling of materials, as well as the management at end-of-life, including meeting the costs associated with these. We heard at the Waste 2022 Conference in Coffs Harbour that France places the end-of-life-costs for managing e-waste on labels for consumers to make an informed choice. Why can’t we do the same here? 

We are asking for a national framework that requires mandatory EPR schemes for material streams that cannot be recycled via standard collection schemes, the development of a national program that requires all manufacturers to report and identify hazardous chemicals within the products they produce and supply, and to prioritise a national phase-out of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) starting with PFAS by banning the use of these substances as raw materials in products. 

3. Sustainable design 
Australia needs to accelerate a step change in the way products are designed in the first instance to prevent waste and pollution from being created, and to ensure that reusability, repairability and refurbishment are objectives during the design and production stages, supported by appropriate systems.

To drive this, WMRR has recommended introducing economic incentives to encourage sustainable design that will minimise waste as well as take up of recycled content, developing enforceable national sustainable design guidelines and regulated design standards like the EU. We also need to build standards and certification systems for reused, repaired, and remanufactured goods to promote sustainable design, as well as financial support and incentives to design systems and infrastructure that support these stages. We have also called for the establishment of national standards for reusability and repairability. 

4. Sustainable procurement
To drive market development that will assist in achieving 80 per cent recovery by 2030, as well as to ensure the objectives of the COAG waste export bans are met, Australia requires mandated sustainable procurement, starting at the federal level and cascading down to state and local governments. 

WMRR is seeking a commitment to set and enforce national sustainable procurement targets for public sector entities, including the development of specifications with a minimum percentage content of Australian-recycled materials required to be used in materials across all new publicly funded projects.

Federal incentives such as awards and tax breaks to encourage sustainable procurement practices in the private sector are also important, as is developing a nationally consistent community education campaign that builds on the ReMade in Australia program, highlighting the benefits of preferencing and purchasing products that are made from Australian secondary raw materials.

5. A concerted, whole-of-government approach to circularity 
Finally, the federal government must collaborate with state governments to ensure a whole-of-government approach, following in the EU’s footsteps to establish a nationally coordinated and consistent pathway for policy and business that will enforce and roll out circular principles and infrastructure across Australia, given we are one common marketplace. WMRR has recommended the implementation and enforcement of a federal proximity principle to ensure collection, recovery and processing of end-of-life materials occur within a distance proximate to their place of generation, formalising the role of the Heads of EPA to provide it with responsibility for determining policies and regulations that ensure a nationally consistent approach, and developing a national circular economy blueprint, similar to the EU’s Green Deal. It is time to step up our action to move to a resource efficient, genuine circular economy so that we may future-proof our environment and economy for generations to come.

Gayle Sloan is the chief executive officer, WMRR 

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