Opinion

On Australia’s WARR-path to a circular economy

It’s been four years since WMRR launched its circular economy conference, and this year, ENVIRO returned, in Canberra, home to a federal government that has made significant climate-related commitments in just over 100 days in office. 

When we reflect on the conversations that we are having today, we have come a long way. Sustainability no longer simply equates to recycling. Increasingly, we are seeing greater understanding that sustainability starts with material and how we manage it – moving rapidly up the waste management hierarchy and including the entire supply chain, with greater (though arguably, far from enough) consideration of issues such as consumption, product design and the direct impact these have on carbon emissions.  

The new federal government has moved quickly on carbon, announcing a review of the ACCUs led by Professor Ian Chubb, consulting on options to reform the Safeguard Mechanism to tackle emissions in line with climate targets. It feels great to be talking openly about carbon and climate change. I believe that this government has its eye on the right thing – finding ways to enable emitters to take ownership of, and reduce their emissions, be it through baselines or incentives. However, these initiatives need to be aligned and integrated. A one-size-fits-all approach to earning ACCUs through the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is unviable given not all emissions nor emitters are the same (e.g., carbon dioxide vs. methane; emissions produced during the manufacturing process vs. emissions produced through the receipt of disposed materials). There must be acknowledgement too that the ERF can capture many more opportunities through our sector with fresh thinking.  

I think that we are on the cusp of real change both in policy and behaviour. ENVIRO provided a forum for presenters and delegates to explore the roles and responsibilities we need based on where we are at, and where we want to be.  

It is no secret that Australia is behind in the circular economy ‘race’ but there was a definite feeling in Canberra that we are working to close the gap. However, we are missing a clear, agreed vision as to how we get there. The task is not insurmountable as we are not the first to do this. We can get there quicker by drawing on international experience.

WRAP UK CEO, Dr Marcus Gover and EU advisor, Scott Wyatt presented on the progress made in the region thanks to their various directives, actions on material streams, and the EU’s Green Deal. I have, and will continue, to advocate for our own Green Deal because we need a growth strategy to transform Australia into a modern, competitive economy that is decoupled from resource use and sets out a pathway to net zero. However, that is not all. We also urgently need a national circular economy, or at least a material management strategy that links priority materials and action to carbon mitigation, particularly if we are serious about cutting emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. 

It was obvious as the ENVIRO program continued, with a clear picture emerging that five key material streams must be focused on globally if we are serious about tackling climate change, being – food, construction, transport, textiles, and fossil fuel extraction (plastics). Other than food, Australia does not have a national strategies for these materials. It’s time Australia rethought this, and moved from traditional thinking, to develop robust regulatory and national policy frameworks for these specific materials streams.

We saw that better research and data continues to be developed and published on the net benefits of moving to a circular economy, and there are several circularity metrics that should be measured. One that all countries, including Australia, remains fixated on, is carbon emissions. This is an exciting area of development because in quantifying accurately the direct and indirect benefits – jobs, environment, economy – of emissions abatement, we will be able to drive greater policy certainty and circular business model disruption. It really is time that we did our own Circularity Gap report for Australia. 

The fascinating presentation by Taku Ide’s of Cleanaway was a highlight, exploring the work being done by Cleanaway to define its emissions reduction targets to align with a 1.5˚C world. There was a real ‘a-ha’ moment as Taku explained the two main greenhouse gases that we should take into account – carbon dioxide and methane – and how they heat or cool the Earth. We need to aim for net zero carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) emissions and de-production of methane.  In Australia, methane emissions from landfill contribute about 10 per cent of Australia’s total methane emissions; the remainder come from fugitive emissions from agriculture, oil and gas sectors. Our sector only contributes 2.5-3.5 per cent of Australia’s total emissions of CO2-e. These are tiny volumes compared to other sectors and we already have in place initiatives to maximise mitigation. But we know that our sector is a heavy hitter, often punching above its weight and we can also do that here in three ways – if we displace virgin material with secondary raw material; return carbon-derived products back to soil; and use residual waste to produce low carbon energy. 

There are many reasons why we need to urgently move to a circular economy, which was brilliantly captured in mikebarryeco director, Mike Barry’s presentation. For one, pollution is increasingly visible. Geopolitical factors are having a major impact on our resources – which are quickly depleting as well – and we are seeing greater strategic control of key raw materials. For instance, the global ongoing supply chain challenges that we are facing as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. 

I know our sector will continue to do the heavy lifting, we will continue to invest and innovate, continue to make secondary raw materials. And while we are only one part of the circular economy equation, we will play a major part in Australia’s transition to a circular economy. 

We now need the entire supply chain and our governments to work with us to break the linear dynamic of our economy. We are this close to moving from cradle to grave, to cradle to cradle, and I am optimistic that we will get there as efforts ramp up over the next 12 to 18 months. 

Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer, WMRR 

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