Two years since China banned imports of plastic recyclables, transitioning towards a circular economy could be the change Australia needs to adjust to a less wasteful future.
Gayle Sloan may not have set out to lead a revolution, but a confluence of environmental, political, industrial and economic circumstances has made her a highly powerful influencer on Australia’s move towards a circular economy (CE).
The CEO of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) is one of the loudest and most persistent voices on what needs to change — and fast — for the country, She says we must catch up with many OECD counterparts on circular initiatives, which include abandoning a “mindless” take-make-and-dispose mentality, adopting “mindful” consumption and speeding the transformation of the $15b waste and recycling sector. In the process, the nation’s troubled resources and manufacturing sectors will be substantially reinvented.
Australia is on the cusp of a paradigm shift and the next few years are critical for reform, insists Sloan. She says it’s time for waste generators to take responsibility for the products they design and to manage materials through the entire product lifecycle. What’s needed are policies and legislation to set the right market triggers, but there’s challenge in the legislative backdrop.
“In policy development we’re not doing well at a national level because, until this term, the mantra of the federal government was to leave it to the states,” says Sloan. “It’s not a fringe issue, it’s very much a front-and-centre issue, and our industry has an important environmental role to play, along with an economic one. If we get it right, we’ll create four times more jobs. There’s just so much opportunity if we set the market correctly.”
Even before China abruptly invoked its long-planned National Sword policy in early 2018 — tightening restrictions on imports of contaminated plastics, paper and other solid wastes, and prompting an instant crisis for Australia’s export-reliant waste industry — Sloan was calling for the overdue revitalisation of the National Waste Policy 2009. After China’s announcement, the agenda of WMRR, as the industry’s national peak body, was pushed along by public outcry, municipal councils in distress, and waste industry players as they grappled with reimagining their business models. Many faced the threat of collapse.
Change of plan
Not before time, it seems, an updated national policy referencing CE principles landed in late 2018. Then, in the afterglow of an unexpected election win, the federal government leapt on board last July with plans to develop a timeline to stop exports of plastics, glass, tyres and other waste streams. It followed that with a new National Waste Policy Action Plan following a meeting of Australian environment ministers in November.
The new plan proposes seven targets (see breakout below) with the first, phasing in bans on waste exports, starting with glass in the second half of 2020. The elimination of problematic plastics is targeted by 2025. Waste reduction targets for all states and territories have also been set.
It is keenly awaited national action, but it hasn’t moved the needle far enough for Sloan who wants mandates, including percentages of Australian recycled content for product design and material selection, and stronger laws and frameworks around producer responsibility. “It’s gone backwards from 2018 to 2019 in that there’s no mandated government procurement target [for recycled materials] now in the plan,” says Sloan.
“You need to sign up to all the steps around the circle, not just an end-of-life ban. It’s not a resource-recovery strategy or a CE strategy. Opportunities have been missed, but it’s a starting point from which we can continue to improve.”
Policy levers and funding are needed for waste avoidance, to stop its creation and to encourage market development strategies for recycled materials. The approach to policy is “way too slow” considering there’s a 2025 target and the prime minister and premiers have decided to ban exports from mid-2020.
“We don’t have markets for [recycled] products on shore, and we’re not getting the policy support or the funding to develop them.” [At the outset] the products that are no longer exported will be landfilled, says Sloan.
"Lots of companies are doing the right thing in relation to managing the whole supply chain.
Australian Waste Policy Action Plan targets
- Target one Ban on export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, commencing in the second half of 2020.
- Target two Reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10 per cent per person by 2030.
- Target three 80 per cent average resource recovery rate from all waste streams, following the waste hierarchy, by 2030.
- Target four Significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry.
- Target five Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025.
- Target six Halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill for disposal by 2030.
- Target seven Make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions.
Looking for inspiration
Leadership and consistency Australia-wide are Sloan’s clarion call as she looks to the European Union (EU), with its overarching approach to setting policy direction for member countries, as a “very transferable” model for Australia’s federal government to emulate with the states.
“The EU sets the clear vision and the goalposts or minimum standards but recognises that every country is different — like the states, they are unique,” says Sloan. “For instance, there’s a different climate in Queensland as opposed to Tasmania, so organics need a different approach. It’s about telling the states what they must achieve and allowing them to choose pathways to get there.”
Targets alone are not enough. The EU’s “carrot and stick” approach — giving countries a finite time to meet goals, such as the Single Use Plastics Directive, which legislates 30 per cent of recycled content in plastic bottles by 2030, before applying mandates — is also effective, says Sloan. “There’s incentive for businesses to step up.”
Obligations are needed for product stewardship through the chain as well as at end-of-life. While polluters pay in the EU, Australia has taken a partial approach — telling generators of e-waste, for example, to fund stewardship schemes, but not to manage their products through the lifecycle and re-use materials.
“We tend to punish the waste end of the chain, but not address the start,” says Sloan. “We have lots of voluntary, co-regulatory schemes, but no mandated approach to product stewardship schemes.”
Sloan salutes the EU’s proximity principles for waste to be managed close to generation, a concept Australia still struggles with as trucks regularly transport waste interstate. “It disrupts the market because no-one knows where it’s going to end up,” she says.
Sloan rates England’s most recent waste strategy as one to follow for addressing the challenges of standardised kerbside practices, food waste and single-use items, by taxing the use of virgin materials and for putting an emphasis on market development. “All those pieces of the puzzle that seem a little too hard here from a government perspective,” she says.
Also on Sloan’s wish list is a plastics tax for Australia to eliminate single-use plastics. Along with harmonised landfill levies to stop the dumping of certain kinds of waste, such as asbestos, in particular jurisdictions. And she wants to promote increased reuse and redesign as a means of managing waste costs. “[This is] so they don’t just fall on councils and the waste industry,” she says.
Sloan believes waste to energy will play a role, saying “it’s up to the market to determine."
"Three years ago, we were talking about coffee cups and plastic bags. Now we’re dealing with big issues such as manufacturing.
How wasteful are we?
- Metals: 226kg per capita; 90% recycled
- Plastics: 103kg per capita; 12% recycled
- Glass: 44kg per capita; 57% recycled
- Masonry (concrete, bricks, rubble): 703kg per capita; 72% recycled
- Hazardous waste (contaminated soils, asbestos, tyres): 259kg per capita; 27% recycled
- Paper/cardboard: 229kg per capita; 60% recycled
- Ash (generated mostly by coal-fired power stations): 504kg per capita; 43% recycled
What about fashion? Australians send 85 per cent of textiles purchased to landfill every year and are the second-largest consumer of new textiles after the US, averaging 27kg of new textiles per capita per annum.
Sources: National Waste Report 2018 (based on 2016–17 figures), University of Queensland
With a career that has encompassed multiple perspectives on waste — from state and local government to private sector and industry body —Sloan is conscious her voice is typically heard on Australia’s tardiness in tackling change.
“Everywhere I look, I see a lot of people under pressure,” she says. Not least in the waste industry itself as it faces the fallout of market failure.
Increasingly, waste and resource recovery players are doing it for themselves by remanufacturing to ensure product is used and not landfilled. Glass sand is being used for roadmaking. Visy has moved from using paper “from the bins” to recycled plastics to create packaging.
“Pockets of good things are going on,” says Sloan. “Lots of companies, large and smaller-scale, are doing the right thing in relation to managing the whole supply chain — everything from resource recovery to landfill management and energy to waste.” Among industry leaders, she singles out SUEZ, Remondis, Veolia and Cleanaway, along with resource recovery operators including ResourceCo and Re.Group, for making materials and creating jobs.
While industry by necessity takes the lead and works to reinvent itself, many approaches are available to companies to prep for the circular economy.
“Recycling is not about what you put in the bin, it’s about buying recycled product,” says Sloan. She believes companies need to think about how much waste they generate and how they manage it — where does it go and what can they buy back? Are they prioritising Australian recycled content? What design principles are they introducing for recycled content? She argues that before investing time or money in a company, directors need to examine its waste management practices and look at what they can lead or change to minimise waste and quash carbon emissions.
As momentum for the circular revolution builds, the waste industry is growing in diversity. This phenomenon is reflected on the WMRR board, chaired by Garth Lamb (Re.Group business development manager), which plays a strong governance role for the organisation’s future strategic direction and its 2000 members.
Professionalising the industry is now high on the boardroom agenda, while the wide-ranging membership tackles disparate major policy issues via working groups. Growing industry engagement is evidenced by WMRR’s 20 per cent revenue increase during the past two years.
Australia’s economic transformation is definitely not moving fast enough for Sloan, but she’s positive it’s happening.
“Three years ago, we were talking about coffee cups and plastic bags,” she says. “Now we’re dealing with big issues such as manufacturing and market development.”
Momentarily, Sloan lets the federal government off the hook. “To be fair, it isn’t a place they know or are comfortable with, and it’s a complex industry. There’s a steep learning curve.”
WMRR has dealt with three federal environment ministers in three years, with current responsibilities shared between three ministers. “The solutions haven’t changed even though the ministers have,” concludes Sloan. “We just have to get them all up to speed and keep going.”
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