Ewaste Watch director and co-founder, John Gertsakis, shares some insights related to product stewardship and its place within a circular economy. Read more …
The current level of discussion about how Australia can better manage its waste and recyclables is at fever-pitch, as is the level of uncertainly in among some businesses and councils.
The media coverage is challenging the status-quo and forcing a re-set on waste avoidance and resource productivity, and this is never a bad thing. Recycling and waste management policy has hit mainstream media in city and country, and on a regular basis eg. War on Waste and 4Corners’ Trashed.
The China policy impacts serve a positive and illuminating role to help improve local capacity and capability, albeit through a process that has revealed patchy planning, inadequate investment and insufficient effective policy reform.
Time will tell whether state government rescue packages, crisis meetings, proposed targets and declarations of action will minimise litter or improve resource productivity; after all that is why we collect and recycle various products and materials. Right?
The potential of circular economy
Enter the all things circular, ovoid and elliptical! With almost religious zeal, the perceived solution is a bright shiny new concept called circular economy. No matter how you look it, the idea of a circular economy is compelling, doable and consistent with associated approaches and buzzwords, including natural capitalism, biomimicry, sustainable development, cradle-to-cradle, industrial ecology and the blue economy.
Without delving into definitions, circular economy makes complete sense from an environmental perspective with its emphasis on optimising and maximising the life of products and materials; closing the loop through biological and technical cycling and adopting an explicitly restorative and regenerative view of production and consumption.
Mining natural resources degenerates and depletes our resources. Urban mining is the opposite, it recovers, reuses and regenerates our resources and restores our environment. It builds our natural and social capital.
For more detail about the circular economy, its application and potential, as well and industrial case studies, refer to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the European Commission, the World Economic Forum or individual companies such as Patagonia, Unilever, Philips, Dell and Fairphone.
The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan gives us a sense of what is required in a practical policy and programs sense. It reflects system-wide, economy-wide measures across sectors, industries and communities. Challenging and ambitious but clearly mindful that a transformative approach is essential across all players in government and industry.
Importantly, the EC’s Action Plan also highlights the comprehensive nature of its measures and how they apply to myriad of existing policies, laws, directives, standards regulations, and codes. While recycling and recyclables are part of the solution they are by no means the focus.
The Action plan is not a rebranding of existing recycling measures, but a cross-sectoral, multi-policy framework that recognises the need for step-change adjustments in many aspects of EU activity.
The relevance to product stewardship?
As we move through the glacial review of the Product Stewardship Act 2011 (the Act), we have the opportunity to accelerate our own transition to a circular economy. Product Stewardship and extended producer responsibility are but two policy tools that can be used to contribute to achieving to a circular economy. This is especially relevant if we wish to genuinely address waste avoidance, maximise resource productivity and reconfigure our current unsustainable patterns of consumption.
The fact that the April 2018 Meeting of Environment Ministers agreed to include circular economy principles in the next update of the 2009 Waste Strategy signals that policy-makers in Australia can see the significance and value of shifting to a circular economy. Whether it will go beyond declarations to maximise recyclable and recycle content in packaging, remains a key question.
If Australia does wish to move from a take-make-waste model to circularity, then our policies, programs and industrial responses need to go well beyond rebranding recycling projects as circular economy silver bullets. Becoming efficient at reusing society’s trash to make park benches is a good option, but limited, and certainly not restorative or regenerative.
The need to engage producers and retailers more effectively
One barrier to more effective product stewardship outcomes is the general divide between producers and retailers, and the waste management industry, including local councils. The gap between these key stakeholders is not only wide and deep but often overlooked. And while progress is evident in some areas, it is generally piecemeal and fails to acknowledge the importance of producers and waste service providers working more closely and cooperatively.
The evidence of this disconnect is palpable. Most conferences, seminars and discussion panels covering product stewardship issues are out of balance; typically loaded with consultants, associations, recyclers or government officials. We need a new and more successful engagement methodology.
On one hand, we talk about the need to eco-design products with end-of-life scenarios in mind in order to minimise materials, and make dismantling, sorting, reuse or recycling more efficient and cost effective, but reality shows otherwise. We mostly end up with crude systems that fail to extract maximum value from collected materials at end-of-life, ipso facto China factor.
We all have a role to play in the transition to a circular economy and ensuring product stewardship is part of the toolbox. The Australian government together with states and territories can surely play a more effective role. They can facilitate improved product stewardship outcomes in a way that reflects circular economy principles, builds collaboration, invests where appropriate, and intervenes with proportionate regulation when necessary to plug market failures.
The review of the Act is not just an administrative necessity but a formal and inclusive opportunity to:
- adjust, improve and expand the instrument to incorporate local learnings from the last five years;
- adopt circular economy principles with much greater attention to dematerialisation and waste avoidance through sustainable design and alternative business models such as the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, right to repair, and product-service systems;
- improve specific elements of the NTCRS such as product scope expansion, reasonable access for under-serviced regions, conversion formulae, targets, community education and recycling standards and auditing;
- maximise the uptake of voluntary accreditation for new and/or existing schemes and programs, and encourage government to effectively market its credibility and value in the wider economy;
- ensure that government procurement policies give preference to companies participating in co-regulatory schemes and voluntary programs operating under the Act;
- pursue system-wide and economy-wide reform in areas such as standards and codes of conduct that reflect circular economy principles and add value to product stewardship outcomes; and
- include other priority product classes to the government’s workplan for assessing and activating new product stewardship schemes programs.
The review process, despite its delayed completion, remains an opportunity to furnish the Department with new solutions, ideas and enhancements that unequivocally pulls Australian environment policy and action into a more ambitious and progressive mode of operation.
Of course, product stewardship is not a panacea. Product stewardship and the Act cannot in itself address or resolve all of complex interactions and considerations that will contribute to a genuinely more circular economy approach to the goods and services we consume.
It can, however, inform a wide range of people across governments, companies, industry groups, and the community to raise understanding of the complex inter-play between the means of manufacture and consumption. The review and product stewardship can be the fulcrum to leverage action to more sustainable resource use.
The transition to a circular economy needs collaboration at unprecedented levels and a much more rigorous view of the tools, policies and regulations that will deliver significant change. Product stewardship has clear role to play, but only if it moves beyond end-of-life processing and reaches back up the supply chain as a way of eliminating and minimising impacts
This article was authored by John Gertsakis – director, communications, and Nick Harford – managing director of Equilibrium. It was originally published in Inside Waste on 8 May 2018.