When you talk to people about the idea of a circular economy you will get very little, if any, criticism. It makes good sense. But how do we get there?

As you would expect, every State in Australia has its own path, which doesn’t really make good sense, at least not to me.

From what I can see, NSW and VIC seem to connect a circular economy with environmental policy and the waste industry. The circular economy and the waste industry are of course related.

The idea of a circular economy has to do with a better, more circular use of resources, meaning an economy that is less wasteful in its operation. But here is the point — the circular economy relates to how the whole economy works, from extraction of resources, to manufacturing to less waste.

How do governments tackle this whole economy issue, then?

When one state gets something right the other states seem to do something completely different.

Interestingly, Victoria has not only the EPA, it also has Sustainability Victoria, the Department of Environment and soon also a brand new “Waste Authority”. Four Government agencies, for basically the same sector of the economy. Really? Yes, really.

But when you look up “Circular Economy Victoria”, you find that it is an incorporated community association. Could it be that people in Victoria don’t trust the government to get there, so they decided to take matters into their own hands?

There must be too much money in waste. The government doesn’t know where to put it. So let’s come up with another bureaucracy. Money? Not a problem. Let’s hike the waste levy. I reckon the next thing will be an agency to coordinate the agencies. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? If I weren’t describing the reality, I could be writing for Seinfeld.

At first glance, NSW seems different. Here, the EPA appears to be mother, father and grandparent of all things circular economy. But when you look closer, there are more agencies.

I understand there is also a circular economy branch with the Department of Planning (DPIE) and there is “Sustainability Advantage”, also within DPIE. For a small membership fee, they’ll help you navigate your way through the tangle of government agencies.

Then there is NSW Circular, within the office of the NSW Chief Scientist. It’s new chief executive, Lisa McLean wrote in The Fifth Estate on 20 June 2019 that “business as usual” is supported by outdated policy, legislation and regulation and the transition to a circular economy will require market reshaping, as well as regulatory and policy changes. True. There seem to be a couple of good “green shots” within the NSW government structure. But how do they operate?

For example: the NSW EPA is currently consulting with industry as to why it shouldn’t withdraw an existing exemption that allows the application to land of “recovered fines” from Construction and Demolition waste recycling. In plain English, this means the exemption will be withdrawn, and until something new has been worked out, those materials will end up in landfill.

The NSW government had set a recycling target for the C&D waste sector of 80 per cent. The sector is now at 75 per cent. Once those fines will go to landfill it will drop to 38 per cent. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Was that what Lisa McLean had in mind when she wrote about the economy needing regulatory changes? Probably not. 

Now, let’s look to South Australia. SA has a really good reputation when it comes to waste management and the environment. Maybe we can learn from them? SA introduced a container deposit scheme in 1977. It took NSW exactly 40 years to do the same. VIC isn’t even there yet. Good Morning, Victoria! How about a new “CDS-Agency”?

SA has an EPA and also an agency called “Green Industries SA”, leading the transitioning to a Circular Economy. Have a look at their business plan. A really good start! I have a feeling they will get it right, again.

The thing that really puzzles me is that when one state gets something right the other states seem to do something completely different. 

Makes perfect sense? 

Would it make too much sense for example to combine related agencies, like Sustainability Advantage and Circular NSW into one agency and give it a clear mandate to support the transitioning in a circular economy? The EPA is clearly not the right parent.

One thing that is missing in all three states: Industry, which is not exactly a small portion of the economy, doesn’t have a seat at the table, where changes about transitioning of the economy are made. Makes perfect sense, right?

Frank Klostermann is director of Full Circle Advisory, a specialist sustainability and environmental consultancy firm. He has over 25 years senior executive management experience in the waste and recycling industries.

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