In the inland Victorian city of Bendigo, the local landfill is almost full.
Instead of opening a new one, or trucking waste to a neighbouring town, the City of Greater Bendigo wants to close the loop on its own curb side waste.
It’s not the first local government in Australia to start dabbling in the space. Councils in Western Australia are joining forces to find solutions and likewise Tenterfield Shire Council, Moree Plains Shire Council and others in NSW are considering waste-to-energy.
But Scott Bryant, the circular economy coordinator, says his council only has a few years to find a solution, thanks to the growing mountains of waste in its Eaglehawk landfill.
Without the luxury of time, the council put out an open-ended call to the industry for help.
Bryant, who has worked on the Scottish government’s nationwide “zero waste” program, says the response was better than expected but the expression of interest procurement exercise revealed serious gaps in Australia’s capability to transition to a post-landfill society.
The vast majority of the 40 respondents, both small businesses and multinationals, came from the traditional waste management industry – plastics recyclers, organics processors and waste to energy operators – with few respondents involved with the upcycling of waste into new products and services.
The tendency is still to treat “waste” as a “low-value commodity to be managed rather than providing solutions to harness the value of these resources and reuse them in the production of new materials, products and services.”
Bryant says the outcome of the expression of interest suggests Australia’s market for managing downstream waste is still quite underdeveloped.
From Bendigo’s approach to market, Bryant says there were some quite interesting next generation solutions for plastics but “it’s still focused on reprocessing.”
“You still need to do something with it, you still need to find a market for that material.”
Where recycled materials are reused, they tend to be downcycled, such as using recycled plastic and glass in roads.
“That’s fine but you are using it once and then it loses its value. It’s not truly closing the loop.”
Bryant says this shortfall in capability reflects the lack of federal and state level drivers to encourage circular economy solutions, such as mandatory minimum recycled content in products, tax incentives for reuse/remanufactured products and bans or taxes on virgin materials.
“We need to sit down and have one-on-one discussions about what these solutions and business models need to evolve.”
It’s not just in Bendigo
The same gap in capability emerged from a group of 16 metropolitan Melbourne councils joining forces to find alternatives to landfill for their curb side waste. Even for such a large cohort, Bryant says the businesses that responded still erred on the innovative side of traditional waste management
This isn’t a uniquely Australian experience either. Bryant observed the same problems in Scotland and across Europe, including in places such as The Netherlands and Denmark that are global leaders in the circular transition.
“There’s a lot of the focus on recycling infrastructure. The question is how do you go that one step beyond recycling infrastructure and incentivise businesses that want to do something with the recycled goods.”
In Denmark, for example, the country is trying to move beyond waste-to-energy and find alternatives that treat the waste as a valuable commodity.
“They are still grappling with the downstream challenge.”
On waste-to-energy, the number of respondents to the Bendigo tender did not go unnoticed. The council’s outcomes statement noted that there appears to be a rush for waste-to-energy players to “get in the door” while there’s still no emissions or circular economy policy consensus on the technology in Australia.
Market cannot deliver a truly circular economy just yet, but there are ways forward
While it’s still very early days, Bryant says the market testing exercise suggests the market alone cannot manage all waste streams in a circular manner at the moment.
This leaves plenty of room for the council to stimulate development in these areas through further procurement work, research partnerships with local universities and developing regional material hubs and depots.