Richard Kirkman, chief executive and managing director at Veolia Australia and New Zealand

TALKING RUBBISH: The prism of being new to something is always handy. It gives new ways to see what can sometimes be “same old” and therefore provides fresh ideas for the future.

Richard Kirkman, the chief executive of Veolia Australia, was recently “double new”. New from the UK to Australia, its environmental services sector, and its environmental public policy scene. New to the chief executive role at the French multi-national’s Australian operation.

Now, some eighteen months into his new country and his new job, and having had the chance to combine overseas insights with domestic experience, Kirkman spoke one-on-one with Talking Rubbish and The Fifth Estate.

One of the aspects of Australia that Kirkman has rightly observed is our sense of the fair go. He’s been considering how fairness might better apply to managing our waste impacts. Speaking from his company’s Pyrmont HQ, Kirkman told Talking Rubbish:

“I think people relate well to fairness in Australia.  Today, if you buy a coffee, you pay for the coffee itself, the shipping, the hot water, the labour, the packaging, the lighting in the shop, basically everything. That is — except the disposal or the potential recycling of that cup. Those processes are paid for by general taxation and averaged across society; ultimately, we all end up paying for everyone else’s consumption.” 

“I think it would be fairer and, in fact, less expensive overall, and facilitate more recycling if we had a ‘Pay as You Buy’ system. Under such an approach, if you choose to buy something, you pay for the end-of-life costs at the point of purchase as part of the product price. “

It’s a unique and interesting take on an age-old debate in Australia. Namely, stakeholders, industry and policy makers here have for years debated how to fund waste minimisation and resource recovery activity.

Usually, because self-interest is the horse that always wins, the various actors have looked for somebody else in the economy or supply chain to pick up the tab for anything that’s an extra cost. It’s exactly there that no progress is achieved as everyone resists cost shifts.

We may not have a circular economy, but we have certainly had a circular debate on this count.

Kirkman’s model an original interpretation of the very academic “polluter pays” principle seeks to minimise impact for everyone.

“‘Pay as You Buy’ is a concept to put in place a fair, lowest cost system to enable recycling or recovery of all materials and avoid landfill.  It’s the best way to allow people the freedoms to consume, as safely as possible, acknowledging the environmental impacts and dealing with them.”

“A true ‘Pay As You Buy’ system would be no extra overall cost than what we pay today, but just distributed more equitably to the people who choose to buy something.  What we do have to make clear is that the consumer wont’ pay more. We are simply shifting the cost to pay for the disposal upfront and at the point of purchase.”

“At the same time, paying for the waste we create also isn’t just the responsibility of the consumer; manufacturers who put the product on the market also need to take account. That can be done by having higher costs in place for items that are non-recyclable. That will drive innovation, cost reductions, and a level playing field for firms that want to be sustainable. Manufacturers are renowned for creating efficiencies (it’s what they do!) and if they were incentivised to make their products recyclable, they would do it, and do it well, which would shift the packaging crisis we have today, ensuring more of the products placed on the market are able to be recycled and used again.”

If you think you’ve just read some of the most practical policy ideas from a chief executive of one of the major Australian waste management and resource recovery firms than ever before, it’s because you have. Kirkman clearly has a voice and an agenda, and believes that environmental services providers need to be at the table helping to form good public policy.

But his message isn’t just to ministers and to other decision-makers. It’s also to his own industry, an industry that has at times been the harshest critic of environmental protection regulators. Kirkman takes the polar opposite view. He basically says, and this is Talking Rubbish’s interpretation: stop the amateurish nonsense of seeing EPAs as your opponent. He strongly makes the following point:

“I want to highlight what an ally EPAs are, and the people there are the secret to waste management or resource management success. The EPAs are the people setting tighter targets, increasing controls, allowing the environmental sector to exist, and driving up standards.  They need to be well funded, and well supported by our industry. Our industry needs the EPAs, and I welcome working with the EPAs to achieve what we call ecological transformation, which is to allow humans to continue thriving whilst minimising the impact on our resources and preventing climate change”. 

It’s in those last words that Kirkman reveals the new again, particularly where Veolia which provides waste and resource recovery, water management, and energy management services is headed under his leadership. Waste minimisation and recycling are, in some respects, means to a bigger end: managing and mitigating climate change.

“As a society, we have the technology and its already being used overseas; we have the finance; we have the expertise; the question is do we have the will, and I think we do. The 2020s should not be remembered as the years we experienced Covid, but the decade of delivery of green infrastructure. Australia is at a real point of transition when it comes to investing in local infrastructure for waste management. We need energy from waste facilities, more recycling infrastructure, and more organic recycling facilities.” 

“What’s missing is the decisions from the Government to make it happen. Industry is pushing, and Veolia is already investing, including via a proposed energy recovery facility in regional NSW. We’ll continue to do this, but we need policy to support the drive and to help us secure feedstock to justify the investments.”

Richard Kirkman is certainly talking more than rubbish.

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