One of the best things we can do in life – and in the waste minimisation and resource recovery sector – is listen.
You remember that one? Funny fleshy things on the side of the head that send sounds to the brain?
It’s almost a lost art in a mad world where the urgent always seems to outweigh important – whether that’s your latest COVID plan, the 100 average daily emails, your assistant manager’s morning tea birthday cake etc.
But when we take the time to pause and really take in what leaders are saying, we learn much for our own businesses, for public policy and for professional development.
That’s why “Talking Rubbish” recently put some questions to three industry innovators – George Hatzimanolis of RePurposeIt, David Singh of ReGroup, and Daniel Tartak of Bingo Industries – about where they see us now and where we’re headed.
I very specifically use the term “industry innovators”. These dudes and their companies see themselves as different from the big international corporations that have largely dominated our sector to date. Being different is to their absolute advantage. They are way more agile than the Big Boys and it has seen all three rapidly investing and expanding across material streams (like construction and demolition materials, road materials, packaging, organics), across geographic locations, and across client categories.
And, while they may work somewhat different markets and apply different technologies and techniques, including container deposit schemes (CDS) in ReGroup’s case, there’s a common theme.
I call it “The Three Ss”: sites, solutions, scale, sensibility. You wanna make money in resource recovery? Do what they’ve done.
A)Find the right sites with the right land uses and right access to capital cities.
B) Offer your clients new solutions to their waste problems especially more recovery, recycling and circularity.
C) Aim for big not boutique.
D) Meet the community, customers and stakeholders where they want to go – such as circularity – through new models of service, performance measurement, technology choice, and engagement.
So, that’s “Talking Rubbish’s” spin. Let’s hear from our leaders.
What worries you most about the resource recovery sector going forward?
George Hatzimanolis, RePurposeIt: Some sectors of the market are not moving quick enough to address the resource challenges we are facing.
There are long standing market conditions and frameworks established around traditional waste collection and disposal that are hard to enter for new resource recovery operators. It requires a major shift in government policy and consumer behaviour to drive a circular economy and whilst we are moving in the right direction I worry we aren’t going quick enough to address the urgent need of our planet.
David Singh, ReGroup: That governments make wide sweeping changes but may not be allowing sufficient time to adjust to changes.
As one example, it is easy to impose mixed plastics bans, but we need time and support to build domestic infrastructure to deal with the material.
It is also easy to say that everything should be recycled/remanufactured domestically, but Australia doesn’t have a big manufacturing sector, so it needs time and support to rebuild industries to genuinely recycle material.
Other concerns of mine are: regulatory uncertainty; monopolies in recyclate commodities markets; public confusion around who is responsible for what; lack of accountability around some manufacturers for recyclability and recovery of their products; the Australian Recycling Label (ARL) which is a hindrance and not a help; and the slow pace of promised public procurement of recycled content products.
Daniel Tartak, Bingo Industries: It is concerning that we don’t have viable circular solutions for many of our problem waste streams. The volume of materials going to landfill continues to grow each year, and plastics in particular are a concern. As a sector, we need to innovate and develop solutions for these material streams.
Unfortunately, this takes time, research and resources. Establishing viable commercial operations for collection, recovery and re-manufacturing facilities doesn’t happen overnight and if we are not working on these solutions today, we will continue to see these streams heading to landfill.
If our sector is not supported to innovate by our communities, markets and governments, then there will be many missed opportunities, not just commercial opportunities but opportunities to improve environmental outcomes for our communities.
What gives you the most hope about the resource recovery sector going forward?
George Hatzimanolis: Many have described the circular economy as the opportunity for the fourth industrial revolution. The opportunity to think differently about our industrial design philosophy and our approach towards our rapid consumption of earth’s resources to drive positive change has never been more immense.
Society is recognising more each day that the essential need for waste management has evolved over time since the earliest recognised waste management system of the 17th century developed over the need to address the rapid deterioration in levels of sanitation and the general quality of urban life to what has today become our most important and pressing challenge of reducing our negative impact to our planet and preserving the very precious resources we have left for our future generations.
David Singh: I’m hopeful about the momentum that’s found in changing consumer and investor demands. It’s driving corporates and governments to change their behaviours and business practices. Consumers are starting to value/demand that more products are recyclable, and even starting to value products that are made of recycled content material (for exampleKit Kat moving to recycled plastic wrappers; Coke moving to recycled bottle lids). It is the start of the wave, but at least it has started.
On the investor front, the extension of “ethical investors” has now moved to ESG ratings and the weight of money now looking to invest in carbon reduction/ abatement is significant. Industries pushed back against the Carbon Tax, but investors are now essentially demanding companies become more responsible for their carbon footprint. My view is that this flows into corporate behaviours – large companies will change their behaviour to appease and attract shareholders.
Daniel Tartak: I’ve been impressed with the number of passionate people, across the private sector, civil society and at all levels of government who are pushing for our sector to grow and innovate. This is incredibly promising and has encouraged BINGO to adopt a recycling-led business strategy.
We’ve invested in industry-leading recovery infrastructure because we know the federal government, state and local governments are serious about creating a circular economy in Australia.
We hope collaboration between the public and private sectors will continue to foster new solutions and increased resource recovery. Improvements to compliance standards across our industry is also fostering a new breed of resource recovery operators who are operating with higher environmental and social standards, this is good for our sector as a whole and is helping to build increased trust with our customers and stakeholders.
What’s the biggest trend/disruption to watch for in the sector?
George Hatzimanolis: Consumers, government agencies and our local community is demanding more than a traditional waste management approach. People are genuinely interested in the circular economy and they expect waste operators to take accountability for not only the waste they receive but also the resources they recover.
David Singh: A big trend which seems to have started already, is more downstream valuing adding to recovered products/ resources. The investment into PET plants, glass plants, washing and flaking for other plastics etcetera will hopefully generate a greater value/need for the sector (stating the obvious I know). More and more companies are following in the footsteps of Visy – vertically integrating their recycling businesses into new manufacturing businesses.
Extended producer responsibility is another key trend. The CDS programs have clearly demonstrated that we CAN significantly and quickly improve recovery rates for items that we chose to focus on, and that the COST of these proper systems – when built into the upfront purchase price – is almost immaterial. If we can make 10c refund work on a bottle of water that might cost 50c in a bulk pack at woollies, then we can definitely make EPR work on a range of other products. The more products that have proper recycling costs built into their purchase price, the better.
Daniel Tartak: I think the introduction of waste-to-energy across Australian resource recovery markets will have a huge impact on our sector. We have been supportive of waste-to-energy from day one and we believe it has a role to play in our waste management and recycling landscape.
However, we believe government intervention and regulation of waste-to-energy is essential to ensure that reuse and recycling are prioritised above energy recovery. We don’t want a situation where recycling targets are being met simply because everything is going into an incinerator, we don’t believe this encourages responsible resource use or is the best outcome for our environment.
Also of note is the ban on exporting plastics which has created some exciting opportunities for resource recovery businesses. It is exciting to think about what a thriving plastics recycling industry would look like here in Australia. Innovating to address plastics waste in Australia will have a huge impact on our industry and will provide our communities with a much needed and wanted solution for this waste stream.