Circular crunch: the end of the make-take-chuck mentality

May 17, 2018 Resources

If recycling were a Commonwealth Games sport, Australia would be Trinidad and Tobago. We rank 17 out of the 34 OECD nations in the recycling event, yet we are increasing the amount of waste we generate —  up 23 percent between 2006 and 2015. Of course, this is not news to the waste industry. Finding a way to deal with waste is becoming more pressing, as our days of exporting it to other countries are rapidly coming to an end.

The Chinese ban on foreign imports of low-grade and contaminated waste came into effect in January this year, and East African restrictions on the import of foreign textile waste are slated to commence in 2019.

As we know, the bans are already biting, with increased recycling costs likely to flow through to ratepayers and consumers in swift measure. It’s not as though we don’t have waste leadership — we have an Australian National Waste Policy, which was agreed to by all Australian environment ministers in 2009. This spawned the 2017 National Food Waste Strategy, designed to halve Australia’s food waste by 2030. But with a mounting waste problem and doors closing, we’re going to need to up the problem solving ante.

It’s worth looking at what’s happening overseas for inspiration.

Producer responsibility

The New Textiles Economy, a report on the global fashion sector, notes that Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is typically mandatory in many other OECD countries. EPR has been successfully pioneered in France since 2007 for clothing and will be extended to home textiles in 2020. Under this model, companies must either set up a recycling and waste management system for their own products, or contribute financially to a third party organisation that will manage waste on their behalf. Once EPR is in place, financial or other inducements can be provided to encourage members to design and make clothes in the most sustainable way. For example, the French waste management body, Eco TLC, offers a 50% discount on the eco-contribution fee for members who use at least 15 percent recycled materials in their garments.

We have an Australian Product Stewardship Act 2011 which covers petroleum based oils, packaging, tyres, television and computers, mobile phones and mercury contaminated lamps. But critics argue that stewardship arrangements are less effective when they are voluntary. The government’s own 2016 National Waste Report identifies product stewardship as an area where deeper national leadership is required.

Incentivising better practice

Rewarding for durability is something the Swedish Government has been doing since 2017. VAT rates are 50 percent lower for repair services for items like clothes, shoes and bicycles.

Traceability

Our government could follow the lead of the French Government, which ran a pilot program on environmental labelling on garments. Giving consumers more information on a garment’s environmental and social life cycle enables more conscious consumption and puts pressure on manufacturers to adhere to higher standards.

US fashion brand, Reformation, voluntarily  publish environmental impact information for all their products in terms of CO2, waste and water. Developing technologies, such as blockchain, could effectively digitally map the lifecycle of a item. According to a industry report on sustainable fashion, this would result in ‘smart garments’ which would allow sorting machines to detect fibre types and determine the next steps in recycling processing.

Certification

The ‘circular economy’ envisages keeping products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. Certification initiatives can play a role in this process by ensuring businesses focus on value at all stages of product development. BCorp for instance, is a certification process that aspires to ‘use the power of markets to solve social and environmental problems.’ Cradle to Cradle Certification is a new standard that measures participating companies on five areas: material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.

Local initiatives

Locally there are also lessons to share. Environmentalists, Ashleigh Morris and Jaine Morris, established The Circular Experiment. Working with 45 small businesses in the main street of Maroochydore, Queensland, they set up a 12-month pilot project to implement and measure circular principles to reduce costs and improve profits by better planning and management of materials. The report they are currently working on will evaluate the real worth of a circular economy-based approach and the feasibility of implementing it on a wider scale.

This year, Stonnington City Council took part in the National Sustainability Living Festival and ran a Giant Summer Clothes Swap. The event included talks to educate on responsibly disposing of unwanted stuff and curating a conscious wardrobe. Interactive workshops demonstrated how to mend broken jewellery and turn an old t-shirt into a tote bag.

However, we work to prevent waste, whether it’s through regulation, education, rethinking of design and processes, or finding ways to reuse our stuff, there’s a role for leadership in the waste industry. Whether it’s leading by example and certifying our own businesses, or lobbying governments to implement higher level changes, or by making small changes that inspire others, the industry is at the forefront of one of the most pressing challenges facing Australia.

Find out more about the latest waste management trends at this year’s AWRE expo kicking off 29 – 30 August at ICC Sydney – register free.