When are we going to get a national framework on the circular economy?

WMRR Gayle sloan

There is a lot of talk of creating a circular economy in Australia by 2030. Just like the export bans in 2019, this ‘target’ seems to be sneaking in and taking over Federal government language and possibly thinking, but what does that mean and how are we going to get there? And unlike the export bans, how do we make them both meaningful and effective? We need a national framework.

In Australia, I feel that we have not yet joined the dots with the link between the natural environment, energy, the ‘waste sector’ and carbon. But we remain hopeful that policymakers will get there.

Both Europe and America have a ‘Green Deal’. The United States also has the Inflation Reduction Act – all are clear attempts to address the current planetary challenges and they cleverly link them to economic tools and outcomes.

To date, Australia has no such framework. We desperately need one. We (the community and businesses) need to know the rules and the pathway so we can all work to achieve what is increasingly being called a ‘just transition’. It’s more than environmental policy, it’s a move to a fairer and more prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient economy.

When WMRR first started calling for a framework years ago, the EU relied heavily on the Waste Directives. These are now augmented by the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Green Deal. Europe has put its framework in place, and even better, has kept building on it, ensuring that it is not only material fit, but future economy and carbon fit.

While Australia does have pieces of the puzzle like the Safeguard Mechanism, and a rather uninspiring National Waste Action Plan, what is missing is that National Framework similar to what we see in the European Union (EU). It involves measures to create a predictable and simplified regulatory environment, a clear paradigm that places obligations on producers to manage product life and impact, as well as speeding up access to finance.

Read more: WMRR’s Sloan comes out firing over CE bill

The key goals of the EU’s Green Deal are threefold. One, economic growth and long-term investment from the financial sector translates into sustainable economic activities and projects. Two, capital is redirected into sustainable investment and away from sectors contributing to climate change. And third, minimising the financial risks from climate change. As noted by PWC in a report entitled ‘the regulatory green wave impacting our shores’, the intent is clear – give the economy a direction where future investments should be made through regulation and leadership.

WMRR continues to call for a similar Australian framework to create that necessary common vision and level playing field. In the absence of that clear and agreed framework, when you try and put all the puzzle pieces together, they may not fit – or worse still, there are massive gaps and years wasted. This risk is real.

It’s not too late for Australia to do that either, but we must move, and it is important that we must move quickly.

At the moment, it feels a bit like death by consultation, with multiple plans, schemes and issues papers all with lovely pictures and motherhood statements being put to us. However, has anyone else noticed they are not joined up, let alone talk to each other or have common language or a common vision? And none that I have found to date consider the sector or the system as a whole, let alone understand it.

In almost all these current consultations, while the words and ambitions of all the Environment Ministers across Australia are high, the departmental documents we drown in have the aspiration to do no more than necessary. For example, e-waste product stewardship proposes a collection scheme (no design, repair or reuse to date), the mixed paper export rules consultation is almost six months late, and let’s be real – the domestic infrastructure and markets promised have not eventuated. There is also a real risk that the packaging regulation being considered will be simply giving business as usual more powers.

There will simply be more cost and risk on councils and the WARR industry. The PFAS consultation does no more than deal with three out of 4,000 forever chemicals and catches up on what Europe commenced in 2001. There is no point replacing one ‘forever chemical’ with another just as bad but without the high profile. And that’s before we talk about carbon consultations.

All too often the government operates in silos (Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water in name only it would appear) and these are simply some of the examples.

Seriously, without a national framework, at this pace we will be circular in 3030 not 2030. For now, we go in circles and not in the way we’d like.

The Federal Government may point to the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act – the only piece of national legislation related to the sector as a whole. But the reality is – again – while it contains some really nice words and sentiments, it’s a toothless tiger with limited power.

Changing this requires courage. Not in the Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister! sense, but in a real leadership sense.

We are at real risk of codifying practices and approaches from the early 2000s with current powers and approaches because it’s the easy option rather than creating a future fit and ambitious regime where avoiding waste, extending the life of resources, and taking responsibility for their impact is a given.

It is time for a strong and powerful national framework that follows the format of the EU’s waste directives and uses the knowledge of the Circular Economy Action Plan. All states and territories need a clear and consistent approach on how we manage the end of waste, how producers design out hazardous substances and how to focus on agreed priority materials consistently and nationally, as well as promote innovation to extend life, reuse and repair options.

All the above create new green, low carbon jobs in Australia. What is not to love?


Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer, WMRR

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