Let's turbocharge recycling with a circular approach to policy

Australian Council of Recycling

By Suzanne Toumbourou
Thursday, 07 April, 2022

Let's turbocharge recycling with a circular approach to policy

As an integral gear in the circular economy, the recycling industry operates across our homes, businesses, factories and construction sites, generating over $15 billion in value to the Australian economy and employing over 50,000 people nationally. But what could a real strategy and policy platform committed to supporting the circular economy look like in Australia, and how do resource recovery and recycling play their role?

Currently, most government policies focus on the linear environmental risks and benefits of the recycling sector. This narrow lens greatly impedes productivity and diminishes the sector’s potential to actively contribute to innovation, technology, employment and manufacturing. If Australia’s federal, state and territory governments were to pursue an integrated strategy and circular policy platform, the benefits would be far-reaching.

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has outlined a set of measurable, deliverable and beneficial initiatives that together form a roadmap to strengthen the circular economy for generations to come.

Our four key policy measures include:

  1. A national alignment between environmental policies and circular economy principles.
  2. Support for strong end markets for recycled material.
  3. Aligning and extending producer responsibility for products brought into the Australian market.
  4. An education initiative to engage consumers in ‘recycling right’.

The federal Budget 2022–23 brought more funding for the resource and recycling sector, and included among other measures an additional $60 million towards the Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF), now bringing the Fund up to $250 million total. The new funding is earmarked to boost advanced plastic-recycling technology that will tackle hard-to-recycle plastics like bread bags and chip packets.

As the first country in the world to ban the export of waste plastic, it was essential that Australia moved early in prioritising its onshore recycling capacity and the RMF has been essential to this endeavour. But to achieve true integrated circular economy outcomes, funding and policies should be approached much more broadly and require a concerted effort across Australia’s manufacturing, technology and innovation sectors and a national alignment between environmental policies and circular economy principles.

Australia should be pursuing another world first — the appointment of a Minister for Resource Recovery and the Circular Economy. It makes perfect policy sense to create a new ministerial role that can work across all these relevant portfolios to drive a whole-of-government approach to circular economy outcomes, including product stewardship, sustainable procurement, resource recovery, recycling and remanufacturing.

Our recyclers are gearing up for a new era of productivity and modernisation. For example, innovative, stronger and cost-effective remanufactured materials are already being developed and used in buildings and private construction across Australia — from major works to home renovations. As the joint largest infrastructure client and major procurer of goods in Australia, our federal, state and territory governments have been slow to deliver on their pledge to prioritise recycled materials in their procurement processes. Now is the time to really make the recycled rubber hit the road!

Governments have a key role to play in not only leading market demand for recycled content but also instilling confidence in the private sector — demonstrating the quality, durability and affordability of Australian recycled and remade materials. Incentives should be offered for the private sector to ‘Buy Recycled’ and governments should work with industry to set ambitious targets for recycled content by 2030 and 2050. Australia already has some world-leading ventures delivering high-quality remade products, like glass and PET bottles. But more compelling measures are required to evolve end markets for these and other recycled products at the necessary pace.

With unprecedented government and industry investment and overwhelming public support for resource recovery and recycling, now is the time to unleash the full potential of a circular economy through these policy measures. The effort to deliver this kind of whole-of-system approach must be led at a national level and we need to start now by pursuing significant policy action to ensure a thriving circular economy. Big ideas and a whole-of-government approach are needed to close the loop.

Suzanne Toumbourou is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR). Prior to ACOR, Suzanne was the longstanding Executive Director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, where she delivered impactful policy outcomes for building sustainability, including advancing the energy performance provisions in Australia’s Building Code and informing the priorities of the COAG Energy Council’s Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings.​With broad experience encompassing federal and state governments, industry and non-profit organisations, she is passionate about leading positive change for people, industry and the environment.
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