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War on Waste

Is Australia winning the war on waste?

Plastic straws and coffee cups get a lot of air time when it comes to Australia’s “war on waste”, but our focus needs to shift from management to prevention if we are ever going to the close the loop. 

AusBiz Magazine - February/March 2019

Words by: Lisa Smyth


Earlier this year Coles and Woolworths enraged customers and created a viral Twitterstorm when they announced they would no longer be providing plastic bags free of charge. Following in the footsteps of similar successful initiatives in the UK and Europe, Australia’s two largest supermarket chains were endeavouring to reduce plastic waste. But is Australia’s waste problem as simple as cutting down on plastic bags, straws and bottles?

“Plastic represents only 6 per cent of waste to landfill in Australia,” explains Mike Ritchie, Managing Director of waste experts MRA Consulting Group. “If you want to make a difference to waste to landfill, you start with organics and you fix that problem before you even look at anything else.”

According to the most recent National Waste Report from 2016, Australians produced 64 million tonnes, or 2.7 tonnes per person of waste in 2014-15. According to Ritchie, 20 million of those tonnes goes to landfill, and the rest is recycled… which is positive, right?

Ritchie passionately disagrees. “Our recycling rates have stagnated at about 56 per cent for almost 20 years. Australia is currently ranked about 17th in the world for recycling and nothing is changing. Organics – food and green waste, garden waste, cardboard and pallets, and timber – represent 10.5 million tonnes of that 20 million. To improve our recycling rate we must get organics, which mostly come from commercial sources, out of landfill.”

No roads to China   

Eighteen months ago China imposed a ban on accepting any more foreign recycling, and even though Australia only sent 3.5 per cent of its recycling to China, it created a lot of talk about a recycling “crisis”. Experts are concerned that recyclers who are unable to ship their waste to China will be forced into more expensive solutions, and recycling will become a less viable waste management option. But not everyone sees the China ban as a problem. 

“I think it was too easy to ship our waste to China,” says Nicole Boyd, GM Infrastructure Innovation for the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA). “Now we have to actually start thinking about how we can deal with our waste in a sustainable and economic manner.”

What often gets lost in all the talk of the “war on waste” is that recycling is not a priority solution. According to the waste hierarchy, we should prioritise avoiding, reducing and reusing waste (prevention) long before we consider recycling, recovering energy from waste and, as a last resort, sending waste to landfill (management). 

“There is no such thing as waste; it’s all just resources,” enthuses Boyd. “We need to change our thinking. For example, when you build a tunnel you’ve got all this waste soil, but for somebody who needs to fill in a big space, that’s not waste. It’s about creating a circular economy – we have certainly encouraged infrastructure projects to think about waste management and how they can reuse waste or actually avoid waste altogether.”

According to Circular Economy Australia, their name refers to “an alternative model that anticipates and designs for resources to be either safely returned to nature or back into systems where they can be reused or renewed”. Ultimately, Australian businesses need to be thinking about what they can do at the top of the waste hierarchy instead of focusing on managing waste once it is already produced.


A green stay

One company that has taken this to heart is the Fragrance Group, owner of the ibis Styles Hobart Hotel. Last year the hotel was named Australia’s first and only 5-Star Green Star-certified hotel. The certification is awarded by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

Project architect Peter Scott of Tasmanian firm Xsquared Architects explains the development aimed to address holistic sustainability across a range of measures, including construction stage waste management, and reduced volumes of construction and demolition waste sent to landfill.

“We were committed to minimising end-of-life waste. That included the potential waste from the demolition of the building in 50 years, but also minimising the waste from regular fit-outs of the hotel. We selected more durable materials, fittings and finishings so the average fit-out cycle of seven years could be increased to 10 years. In this way two cycles of renewal in the 50-year life of the hotel are eliminated from the waste stream.”

The hotel also meets commitments for energy efficiency, thermal insulation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – though guests will hardly notice the sustainability measures in place during their stay. 

“Our client wanted to provide a good hotel experience, not necessarily a good sustainability experience, for guests. But they also have operational commitments as part of their certification, with a waste target of no more than one kilogram per guest per night, which is about seven times less than the Australian average. It’s all about avoiding waste in the first place.” 

Completing the circle

The circular economy is as much about returning materials safely to nature as it is about avoiding and reducing waste, and this is where composting has a huge role to play. Food contaminates conventional recycling streams, and is one big reason why 10.5 million tonnes
of our landfill is made up of organics.

“Since we started in 2006, we have been trying to close the loop and find a viable end-of-life option, which of course is composting,” says Richard Fine, founder and Sustainability Director of food services packaging supplier BioPak. “I’d say 95 per cent of our products are now compostable, and we will be phasing out the remaining plastic items in the next two years.”

BioPak doesn’t just create compostable coffee cups, lids, takeaway containers and cutlery; the company provides a compost collection service to make it easier for cafés, restaurants and hotels across metro areas to “close the loop”. 

Some groups, like the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, already have separate streams for food and packaging waste that, once composted, creates electricity and produces fertiliser. The organisation diverts 84 per cent of its waste from landfill, and is on track for
90 per cent by 2020.

So if Australia is to meet its waste reduction targets, companies need to take a little advice from their local GP – prevention is always better than cure.  




The World Economic Forum estimates circular economy activities could be worth $26 billion each year in Australia by 2025. 


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