Effective planning is the key to a circular economy

By Alex Serpo, NWRIC
Thursday, 18 May, 2017

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Only through effective planning can policymakers unlock the power of the circular economy, writes Alex Serpo.

The circular economy model has been adopted by leading international organisations such as the European Commission and the International Solid Waste Association. To underpin sustainable development, the circular economy is increasingly gaining traction with Australian leaders in both business and government.

Whilst volumes have been written on this new paradigm, in essence the circular economy means providing the material requirements of a society through recycling.

This concept is easy to understand but hard to implement. In the next two decades, moving towards a circular economy means Australia’s resource recovery rate must grow enormously. It is currently estimated to be approximately 50% by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Australia today generates approximately 50 million tonnes of waste every year. Historically, waste generation has grown at rates as high as 7% per year. If the past is a guide to the future, then Australians could generate as much as 80 million tonnes of waste materials by 2040, every year.

So to create a national resource recovery rate of 75% by 2040, we need to add a new recycling capacity capable of processing an additional 35 million tonnes per year — in 23 years. That’s close to 1.5 million tonnes of new capacity every year, without pause. Plus, we will need to keep, upgrade and repair existing capacity.

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council represents the majority of Australia’s waste management and recycling companies. If the market conditions are right, these companies are ready to put their shoulder to the wheel and fund this new infrastructure.

However, today’s market conditions are tepid. The biggest challenge is planning. The engine room of the circular economy is recycling infrastructure — which requires large capital investment — and secure markets. Recycling infrastructure needs to be built with a 15–25 year timeline, as this timeframe is necessary to depreciate the capital equipment required.

Therefore, policymakers need to create processing sites that are protected for up to 30 years. Protection means separation from development that might be sensitive to odour, dust and noise, plus frequent truck movements. Right now, policymakers aren’t always ready to make this commitment, and this lack of commitment is holding back investment.

Worse still, in some cases policymakers are actively shutting down existing recycling infrastructure — sometimes due to reactionary, short-term thinking. This short-term thinking is harmful to Australia’s long-term economic and ecological prosperity.

For example, in Victoria councils have been making zoning decisions which ignore state-level infrastructure plans. While such decisions may provide local benefit, forcing recycling infrastructure to relocate is a step backwards in terms of sustainable development for the whole state. Further, the planning provisions created by the EPA, local government and state government often don’t align — creating a planning maze for potential new recycling initiatives.

This issue is not limited to Victoria. In Queensland, the creation of a landfill levy, and its subsequent rollback less than a year later, undermined recycling investments. One national recycling company complained of opening a recycling centre only to shut it down six months later, laying off 20 staff. The issue here is regulatory stability, another necessity for investment.

Australia’s recycling and waste management companies have the capacity to create a circular economy to the benefit of all Australians, both present and future. However, the creation of a circular economy requires policymakers to commit to long-term, integrated planning that supports recyclers.

Alex Serpo is a policy advisor to the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC), a new national body formed to represent the interests of waste and recycling companies across Australia.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/chilimapper

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