Australian garbage wheelie bins with yellow lids for recycling household waste lined up on the street kerbside for council rubbish collection.

With unprecedented government and industry investment and overwhelming public support for resource recovery and recycling, the Australian Council of Recycling believes now is the time to unleash the full potential of a circular economy through key policy measures. 

Over the past few years, politicians have often peppered their speeches with the phrase “the circular economy”. They use the concept to link  resource recovery to the broader Australian economy, signalling that they are both pro-environment and pro-business.

But what would a real policy platform committed to supporting the circular economy look like in Australia? And what role does resource recovery and recycling play?

In a circular economy, resources are reused to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. Recycling is an integral part of this approach to economic development. Our industry operates across our homes, businesses, factories and construction sites. It creates jobs for Australians by collecting, sorting, and reprocessing recovered materials to make new products.

As just one part of the circular economy, the recycling and resource recovery industry generates over $15 billion in value to the Australian economy. It employs over 50,000 people nationally and brings significant environmental benefits, such as decarbonisation. If our government were to pursue an integrated strategy and policy platform aimed at turbo-charging the circular economy, the benefits would be far-reaching. 

So where do we begin? The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has put forward a policy platform of measurable, deliverable and beneficial initiatives that should be adopted as soon as possible. The strength of the circular economy affects us all, and we need long-term commitment from governments—not hasty election promises.  

Our four key measures include:

  1. national alignment between environmental policies and circular economy principles
  2. strong end markets for recycled material
  3. producer responsibility for end-of-life of products brought into the Australian market
  4. making sure consumers know how to “recycle right”

The thick of it

The past few federal governments have spread the burden of responsibility for Australia’s economy, environment and finances across several ministerial portfolios. Each has its own distinct subject matter, with the goal of advancing our collective wellbeing and prosperity. 

A minister for resource recovery and the circular economy deserves its own place within this constellation. This ministry would drive a whole-of-government approach to circular economy outcomes, including product stewardship, sustainable procurement, resource recovery, recycling and remanufacturing. 

Alongside the obvious environmental benefits, resource recovery and the circular economy are equally concerned with innovation, technology, employment and manufacturing. They therefore require a distinct ministerial role that can work across all of the relevant portfolios.

There also exists a fundamental lack of alignment between environmental policies and circular economy principles across most governments in Australia. 

This is perhaps best illustrated in the inconsistency between the federal government’s export bans on a range of unprocessed recyclable materials and state-level regulation that limits how recyclable materials can be stored and processed. 

Essentially, we can’t export these materials, but we are impeded in our efforts to recover and recycle them – not to mention the State-level barriers to research and development on recovered materials.

Establishing an Australian Resource Recovery code board as a joint initiative of the federal, state, territory and local governments, along with industry, could deliver a sensible and nationally harmonised framework for resource recovery and recycling. 

It would oversee “end of waste” codes and product stewardship schemes (such as container deposit). This would put a focus on advancing circular economy outcomes and  ensure more recoverable materials are recycled in Australia.

End markets make economies

Unlocking government purchasing power to support homegrown markets for Australian-made recycled materials and products will have a significant impact on strengthening the circular economy.

Our federal, state and territory governments are jointly the largest infrastructure client and major procurer of goods in Australia. However, to date, they have been slow to deliver on their pledge to prioritise recycled materials in their procurement processes. 

Governments have a key role to play in not only leading market demand for recycled content. They also instil confidence in the private sector by demonstrating the quality, durability and affordability of Australian recycled and remade materials. 

Our recyclers are gearing up for a new era of productivity and modernisation. Innovative, stronger and more cost-effective recycled content is already being developed and used in buildings and private construction across Australia—from major works to home renovations. 

Incentives should be offered for the private sector to “buy recycled” and governments should work with industry to set ambitious – even mandated – targets for recycled content by 2030 and 2050. 

More aggressive measures, such as directly linking federal funding of infrastructure to the percentage of recycled materials used, will support much needed transformation of these end markets.

Extended producer responsibility 

The concept of extended producer responsibility is gaining traction overseas, particularly amongst the OECD membership. Many governments, faced with increasing amounts of materials going to landfill, are actively looking at policy options that place the responsibility for the post-consumer phase of certain goods back on producers. 

Back home, there is a growing movement among manufacturers and distributors to take responsibility for their products at their end-of-life, with a suite of product stewardship initiatives being rolled out across Australia. 

These product stewardship initiatives are diverse: right now, there are eight regulated and one voluntary accredited product stewardship scheme in Australia, plus 18 unaccredited schemes and 13 in development through the government’s Product Stewardship Centre for Excellence, keeping more recoverable materials onshore.

These schemes all actively contribute to the circular economy and have been well received by both businesses and consumers. 

However, there is a need for much better alignment of these schemes through a common framework. The government should also support these schemes with stronger incentives for participation, with strong mechanisms to better address free riders and imported products. 

Recycling “right”

Australians have a proven desire to recycle correctly and reduce what goes to landfill but often feel unsure if they are always getting it right. 

With new packaging materials hitting the supermarket shelves each year, coupled with over 500 local government areas each with their own municipal waste systems and requirements, recycling contamination is a growing concern for both governments and recyclers. 

A lack of public education on how to “recycle right” could have a significant effect on the circular economy and result in more recoverable and recyclable materials ending up in landfill. 

Campaigns such as the recent ReMade in Australia initiative are strongly welcomed by the recycling sector. However, more should be done to help consumers “recycle right” and have confidence that what they put in the recycling bin actually gets remade into new products. 

More than ever we need the federal government, in close collaboration with industry, to deliver an engagement program to champion Australia’s recycling sector and enhance consumer awareness in “recycling right”. 

Further investments into dynamic industry-led initiatives such as ACOR’s Recycle Mate app, and exploring a government-backed verification framework, are crucial for the future of our industry. 

Supporting domestic recycling through engagement programs offers the unique opportunity to advance our carbon emission reduction goals without taxes, and creates jobs and a robust end market in the process. 

Closing the loop

Whilst there is great political and public support for a circular economy in Australia, we are only just beginning to see the gears grind into action. The effort to deliver this kind of whole-of-system approach must be led at a national level. Now is the time to pursue significant policy action to ensure a thriving circular economy. Big ideas and a whole-of-government approach are needed to close the loop. 

And while a circular approach must encompass all aspects of economic activity, including design, procurement and production, a pressing priority is to strengthen resource recovery and recycling in Australia. This will assure a clean and resilient economy that future generations can be proud of.

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