This Churchill Trust tour has shown that the world is shifting to a more circular material economy, and that Australia has to adapt its systems to be competitive in this new world order. Europe, and especially Netherlands and Germany, are building upon their strong foundations for even higher recycling rates for many materials, including plastics.
Australia has some of the essential building blocks, and needs many more. Also some of our building blocks, such as kerbside collections and product stewardship schemes, must improve if we are going to withstand China’s bans, maintain recycling rates and have a more productive economy. We are at a critical turning point where our policies, decisions and investments need to be informed by overseas experiences, on matters from incineration to progressive bans and incentives.
During this tour it became clear that in relation to use, recycling and circularity of all plastics, Australia performs poorly, with high use and low reprocessing at ~12%, whereas countries such as Netherlands and UK reach 33%, and Germany 38%. Australia is at risk of seeing it’s already low recycling rates plummet, larger quantities going to landfill and starving its manufacturers of quality recyclate. If the latter happens Australia will enter into a viscous cycle of lower recycling rates and economic insecurity.
The key pivot point in the trip was learning that China introduced its bans in 2017 with the encouragement of the European plastics recycling organisations for adoption of European standards on sorted bales and recyclates. I learned that the Europeans took this strategic step to ensure that they could lift standards and shift the EU to a more circular and powerful economy, less dependent upon natural resources from outside EU. Together EU and China have re-orientated global trade and standards. These actions indicate the directions for our materials economy.
I learned that Circular Economy Strategies are being developed and adopted in Netherlands and Germany as new whole-of-government and industry policies. For these countries it forms part of their national strategy for economic security and independence with continued jobs and prosperity alongside environmental and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
For these reasons, there is almost universal support for the circular economy and plastics strategies and the programs, and the widespread adoption and replication by many organisations, including those that might normally be at loggerheads:
In Netherlands and Germany it is well understood that the waste market is artificial, and that it requires regulation and measures to ensure that everything is not sent to landfill. Waste like water flows to the lowest point, and so they design policy and program levers to lift material to higher value.
I saw how the focus and actions are shifting from waste and quantity toward durability, quality then quantity to meet end market requirements, and how this has stimulated enthusiasm and investment by the private sector and governments. Far from acting as a drain, in Europe and SE Asia, the EU Circular Economy Strategies and China’s bans have accelerated action on sorting, reprocessing, measurement systems, quality assurance and lifted professional standards and accountability.
The scale of change is also being achieved by sophisticated collaboration between governments and industry groups. These take various forms including joint ventures and co-funded multi-year projects (that are buttressed by legislation, regulation, bans and other measures and incentives).
Keywords: Circular Economy, Plastics, Recycling, Marine Litter, China's Ban, Plastic Bags, Public Procurement, Plastics Manufacturing, Carbon Emissions, Australia
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