Circular Economy, Features, WMRR

Voluntary targets just don’t work

As I sat at my computer to write this column, I started by looking back at my final piece for 2022. I outlined three major challenges and hopes for 2023. One was a nationally agreed definition of waste. Two was real demand for our recyclate and material. And three, was a plea/hope we’d see some leadership from our policymakers.  

By this measure, sadly it’s a cross for points one and two but it’s a surprising and hopeful tick for point three.  

https://www.pc.gov.au/It came in the form of a speech at the start of November from federal treasurer Jim Chalmers outlining a fresh push to meet Australia’s emission reduction targets. 

While he said the Government would not go down the route of designing what he called ‘an Inflation Reduction Act Lite’, which is US President Joe Biden’s ‘green deal’ linking action on climate change with economic growth, Chalmers made positive moves in the right direction.   

He said: “Our plan will be ambitious but uniquely Australian focused on Australia’s strengths…our focus is on the development of industries that diversify our economy and make Australia more competitive in global markets, in an enduring and sustainable way”.  

In what can only be described as music to the ears of the WARR sector, the Treasurer said he will refocus the Productivity Commission to ensure Australia realises the economic potential presented by the net zero transition.   

WMRR has consistently called for the sustainability to be embedded right across government – not just the focus of environment departments. What we do and who we impact goes right across government at all levels.   

We might be finally making some headway. And one hopes this thinking will quickly become business as usual for government at all levels in Australia.  

However, at this point it is appropriate to acknowledge the leadership of another individual – the current US President.   

As The Australian’s Chief National Reporter Tom Dusevic wrote, with his game changing Inflation Reduction Act “Joe Biden has forced the rest of the rich world to respond”.  

And while that is no doubt true, it still took leadership from the Australian Treasurer to acknowledge that further action is required here if Australia is to meet its net zero targets.   

However, in my view we can’t just rely on the market to get it right. As President Biden, and before him the EU, showed, government intervention is required given the clear evidence in Australia to date that voluntary targets without regulation do not get us to where we need to be. 

It takes courage for a politician to level with the public, especially when it involves missing targets.   

The fact is Australia is not on track to hit emission or methane reduction targets, just as we are not on track to hit our resource recovery targets.  

The Treasurer has become the first politician from a major party to utter out loud what has been whispered in the corridors of power and industry for years.   

Reaching net zero and resource recovery targets are inexorably linked, and the country can get a two for one deal here. If we really want to ‘get with the programme’, we can link biodiversity targets too – as our sector is integral to not using virgin (linear) materials and achieving these too – a three for one deal if you like. The WARR sector can and must play a vital role in Australia meeting its target.   

Read more: Alice Springs increases refund on wine and spirits bottles

Every day in Australia we are seeing evidence of the damage our current, linear economic system causes – including pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Australia needs to move away from our current attitude of “make, use once, and dispose” to one where we instead “make, use, repair, recycle and remake”.   

By valuing everything, harnessing the full potential of our planet’s resources, and phasing out waste wherever possible, we can move to a new era of sustainability. 

 Australia needs to build resource recovery infrastructure to handle an additional 10 million tonnes of material in the next seven years across the nation if we are to meet our 80 per cent resource recovery target.
To achieve this, we need to stop waste moving around and a commensurate increase in the uptake of products made from recycled Australian materials (not simply imported) from both business and government.   

We need to urgently eliminate the stigma against circular products, which are presumed to be of lower quality to more traditional, linear products.  

The lack of systems thinking by some governments is making it harder and more expensive to recover recycled materials.   

The refusal to turn the tap off on dangerous products being placed on our market, not addressing the economics of resource recovery, and restrictions on exporting into the global market while failing to prioritise local recycled materials all continue to reinforce the fragility of the waste and resource recovery sector in Australia and the need for bold systems thinking that finally shifts the dial.  

For example, we need governments to expand extended producer responsibility to ensure material put to market is safe and easily recoverable by our sector.   

Also, it makes no sense that other countries banned PFAS up to two decades ago yet here we are still talking about a ban coming into effect in two years’ time and only for three of the more than 4,000 types. 

We are playing catch up here. As the old saying goes, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly – so Australia must ban them all.   

As we hit the end of 2023, and another disappointing outcome from the Environment Ministers’ Meeting in November, I do lament that we have not seen the “regulation” promised.  

I strongly believe Australia really is at a crossroads when it comes to waste and resource recovery policy.  In 2024 will we finally see the national understanding and leadership required to value all material, design it well to maximise life, manage carbon and methane and capitalise on local investment so that we can create Australian jobs, or will we continue with rhetoric and platitudes?   

I really hope the former, as I know that we can be the solution to so much of the current climate challenges, as the clock keeps ticking and the planet keeps warming. The time for action is now.

Gayle Sloan is the CEO of WMRR 

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