Booming after the war… on waste

Tuesday, 12 February, 2019

Booming after the war… on waste

Winner of 2018 WMAA* Women in Environment Award, product stewardship advocate Dr Helen Lewis** said now is a great time to be involved in the resource recovery industry and she’d like to encourage more women to get involved in the industry and aim for higher profiles.

Over the last 12 months, Dr Lewis has seen a significant shift in the mindset of industry, government and consumers when it comes to waste matters. This has provided great momentum for the resource recovery industry, which is now ripe for the picking.

The reason for the momentum is threefold, according to Dr Lewis. She said greater government and industry awareness has resulted from ‘China’s wake-up call’ (referring to China’s National Sword policy, which stopped 1.25 megatonnes of recyclables previously exported to China). Secondly, there has also been a push for recycled content in packaging, with the release of sustainable packaging targets late last year from Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO). Thirdly, she believes community awareness has peaked thanks largely to ABC’s War on Waste programs. “Some companies have told me they need to have extra staff on standby to deal with the bombardment of calls and questions from customers after each episode aired,” Dr Lewis said.

Back to the future

Even back in the ’90s when Dr Lewis first started out in the product stewardship field, industry had been under pressure to do something about waste and litter; however, there was not quite the same amount of community support that we’re experiencing now. “It just so happened that the program I was first involved with [in the plastics industry] was about product stewardship, but it wasn’t called that at the time,” she said.

“[The program] was about setting up recycling programs, litter education and a whole lot of issues that have now come back into the fore.

“I started out on a one-year program, stayed for five and I’ve been in product stewardship ever since.”

She then went on to manage an eco-design research and training program at RMIT University, which allowed her to work closely with manufacturers and establish a real insight into how product design and industry can play a crucial role in improving recycling.

But her watershed moment came in 2010, when she secured the role as CEO at Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI). Dr Lewis recalls that at the time hazardous battery waste hadn’t been addressed, except for lead acid batteries, and there was a real gap in product stewardship.

For six years Dr Lewis and a very active group of industry and government members got their teeth stuck into designing a product stewardship program for batteries, making sure that batteries were firmly on the policy and industry agenda. Although the groundwork has been laid, there is still more work to be done to establish a successful product stewardship program as battery recycling is still only at around 5–10% in Australia. So what’s the secret to a successful program?

Model success

“Product stewardship looks carefully at the life cycle impact as well as recycling and waste management,” Dr Lewis explained. “We look at how the product can be designed so that it has the least impact at end of life. It really is the only way forward for a lot of complex products that are in the waste stream, such as electronics and batteries.”

At ABRI, Dr Lewis conducted research into various regulatory and funding models to determine how to design a battery stewardship program that could work for everybody — industry, government and consumers. “The challenge [for product stewardship programs] is to build them into ‘business as usual’ and work out how these programs will be funded.

Regulation would have been easier, Dr Lewis admits. “But we have a reluctance in this country to regulate, so we have to be clever about how we can build [product stewardship] into new and innovative business models.

“The programs that work well are set up with that whole different perspective — adding value, not just a cost.”

For example, battery stewardship programs can add value by providing a way of accessing raw materials, such lead, nickel or cobalt, at a more stable price rather than relying on fluctuating commodity markets, Dr Lewis explained. They can also contribute to a company’s reputation and build customer loyalty by providing a convenient and environmentally responsible recycling service.

Shared responsibility

In Australia, Dr Lewis believes the product stewardship business models need to be designed around a shared responsibility between industry and government.

“Municipal councils have a critical role to play in the waste management system but a lot of product stewardship programs in the past haven’t engaged as much as they should have with councils.

"It should have been more of a partnership rather than last-minute,” she said.

What concerns Dr Lewis now is the growing amount of complex waste still ending up in landfill. “You see [it] all the time on the footpath as hard waste. It’s a terrible waste that these products just get crunched up and sent to landfill.”

Dr Lewis suggests that it may be a good idea for councils to build on the momentum and start putting a bit more pressure on companies to set up product stewardship programs, “whether it’s carpet, textiles or furniture manufacturers, all the type of things that we see on the nature strip that really could be recycled.

“A little bit of lobbying from the council’s point of view could help because, after all, they are the ones that have to deal with it so the pressure should be put back onto industry.

"They can also play a role in putting product stewardship more firmly on the federal government’s agenda so that we get more national leadership.”

Getting on target

Although previously not a fan because of its relatively high cost, Dr Lewis sees the Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) as a positive step as it, too, is helping to change the consumer’s mindset and get them into the habit of taking things back. “We should be able to build on that mindset shift for all sorts of other products, such as clothing, batteries, mobile phones and other small electrical items that can be easily carried to a drop-off point,” she said.

Through her more recent role as Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), Dr Lewis was involved with the research behind the new APCO sustainable packaging framework.

The APCO 2025 National Packaging Targets include:

  1. 100% of all Australia’s packaging will be re-usable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 or earlier.
  2. 70% of Australia’s plastic packaging will be recycled or composted by 2025.
  3. 30% average recycled content will be included across all packaging by 2025.
  4. Problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging will be phased out through design, innovation or introduction of alternatives.

“The packaging targets, while voluntary, are already starting to drive a lot of change.

“Ultimately, we may need more regulation, but I think the targets alone are really motivating industry to do a lot more.”

Building on the momentum

From a corporate branding perspective alone, product stewardship can be a real positive. “Consumers now really do want companies to do the right thing and respect companies that do.”

After 20 years in the environmental management business, Dr Lewis said: “Now is the time for us to capitalise on the momentum to generate change.”

**Dr Helen Lewis is the principal of Helen Lewis Research, an environmental consultant specialising in product stewardship and sustainable packaging. She is also an Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF). For six years until November 2016, she was chief executive of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI). Prior to that, she was director of the Centre for Design at RMIT University where she managed an innovative research, consulting and training program to promote more sustainable design of buildings, products and packaging.

*On 1 January 2019, the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) changed its name to the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR).

Image credit: © Popov

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