The link between waste and climate change

As I sit here in Far North Queensland and marvel at how well it has been cleaned up Cyclone Jasper (well done Cairns Regional Council and all those involved from the Queensland Government – and yes, as requested, I did not cancel my plans!) and we read about the floods in Victoria, storms in South East Queensland and severe bushfires in Western Australia (please all stay safe), I can’t help but wonder when we really will move to take the impact of climate change seriously in Australia.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate summary, nearly all parts of Australia experienced warmer than normal temperatures in 2023 with the year coming in eighth hottest since records began 110 years ago. And this comes after the EU-backed climate change service, Copernicus, declared 2023 to be the world’s hottest on record.   

I was lucky enough to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef recently and see the impact firsthand of seawater temperature rising on bleaching the reef. There is awesome work underway to assist with regeneration, but the reality is that this ‘cure’ will never address the cause.  I sincerely hope then, as we come out of the coma of Christmas, that we really are going to look around us at the devastation being experienced already in 2024 and pivot strongly towards policy that will prevent these ongoing natural disasters.

We at WMRR have long argued that there is a clear link between waste and material management policy and climate change. The reality is that the more we consume, the more we draw down on the planet to use virgin materials, the greater the emissions that we create and the warmer the planet becomes. It is no coincidence that we argue long and hard for smarter policy in Australia that enables extended lifecycle, increased uptake of recyclate, design obligations and true producer responsibility. In the absence of this systems change, and seeing the system as a whole, we are doing little more at times than window dressing.

Among my January reading, it is both wonderful and disheartening at the same time to read of the considered efforts and breakthroughs happening in the UK and the EU to manage challenging waste streams like e-waste and packaging.

The UK Government has just announced plans to make it easier for households to recycle electrical equipment and whitegoods by requiring household collection of e-waste, making large retailers roll out collection points for e-waste, and forcing retailers and, importantly, online sellers, responsible for collecting unwanted or broken large electrical items such as fridges and cooktops when delivering replacements. Within this framework, they are also tackling vape waste by requiring suppliers to properly finance the cost of their separate collection and treatment. These are steps we should be mirroring in Australia. This is not revolutionary thinking – it’s simple common sense and should be the norm, not something to be hailed.

Yet why do we find such obvious initiatives so difficult to achieve here in Australia? We know from the lessons of container deposit schemes nationally that the community wants these programs – they want to recover material. We also learned from this roll out that both the community and business want a nationally consistent approach – not a state-by-state one. This just leads to calls down the track for consistency and alignment, which should occur in the first place. So why over a year after the Environment Ministers Meeting said we would progress a national scheme, and seven months after a bereft linear scheme was floated with little state/federal cooperation in development and no thought of systems thinking, are we still swimming in silence?

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We urgently need to recognise the value of material and use intelligent system-wide thinking regulation, including design, re-use and repair, to move Australia onto the path we need to be on, to achieve our 2030 targets. To be honest this has been obvious since at least 2020 with the packaging system being the exemplar in how not to regulate a system if bona fide in achieving targets.

Australia must adopt some UK thinking here with all e-waste included in our scheme. This includes all the invisible e-waste that is proliferated throughout our home (the idea that to be e-waste it must have a cable is outdated for example). We need to stop swimming in grey and mucking around with our own Australian definitions and look to what is occurring globally and align.

Given that we are constantly told by policy makers that we do not make these products here making it more challenging to regulate, does it not make sense then to utilise the global definitions and approaches, in particular the EU where most head offices are domiciled? We also need to accelerate the packaging reform…seriously. The Australian Packaging Covenant is 20 years old. THe means 2024 must be the year we get on with it. At the final Environment Ministers Meeting of 2023 we had the Federal Government taking responsibility for packaging, so in 2024 we must get the detail and get this implemented.

There is no reason Australia should not lead the world given the energy we have spent collectively on packaging, but at the very least we need to leapfrog our archrivals the Brits with the introduction of a genuine producer responsibility scheme with the whole supply chain and teeth. We need the teeth not to just be on those that try to manufacture these recycled commodities at the end of the chain, through export restrictions, but also on those that place this material on the market.

We have seen clearly with container deposit EPR schemes that the price signal placed on the producer has led to significant investment in infrastructure and employment nationally, increased recovery and use of these recycled materials in Australia. Compare this with the current approach of paying a fee to be part of a body (Covenant) that grows its own physical staff and has done little to increase practical recovery and investment in needed infrastructure – it’s a no brainer.
I know you need to be careful about what you wish for, but I genuinely hope that as quickly as we have demonstrated our ability to clean up after disasters, we can move to intelligent systems thinking policy in 2024. We have had Teams meetings on these topics for a number of years now, and while that talk has carried on at sometimes a pace that is nothing short of glacial, we have seen that nature moves far quicker. The harsh reality for those that are involved in the clean-up of these disasters – they are becoming more and more frequent. While many of us like to seek the sun for our holidays, we must address the challenge of global warming. Time keeps ticking and the planet keeps warming. The time for action is now.

Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer, WMRR

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