Towards a waste free future

19 May 2022

It’s time to change how we think about waste. The ever-more complex products that surround us have shorter and shorter life cycles – even though they’re made of valuable, durable materials like metal and plastic.

Current disposal practices squander the energy, resources and value locked inside these products, and gravely threaten our environment and health.

Altogether, Australians generate 67 million tonnes of waste each year. Most of that is not recycled. We’re not alone – if the current global trajectory is maintained, by 2050 humanity will need the equivalent of almost three planets to produce enough resources to satisfy global consumption.

But while it’s easy to “admire the problem” of waste, ATSE’s report on technology readiness in the waste and resource recovery sector set out to find systemic solutions. This report is the third in a series of technology readiness reports supported by the Australian Research Council, with the first two looking at transport and health.

Through this project, a team of ATSE Fellows and other leading experts considered key questions about technology readiness in this increasingly vital sector.

What if we could design more resource efficient products using materials that could easily be recovered and used again?

How big are the potential social, economic and environmental benefits in moving from a linear to a circular economy?

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One sector’s trash…

The economic argument for a circular economy is compelling: more efficient use of resources, less waste management costs, and new highly skilled jobs, particularly in small and medium enterprises.

There are also significant environmental, health and social benefits to an economy based on good design, reusing products and materials, and recovering resources to use again.

Just a five per cent increase in material efficiency in Australia could boost the economy by $24 billion. So what’s holding us back? ATSE set out to answer this question.

Want not

The expert working group was guided by the findings of the 2018 National Waste Report and focussed specifically on the volume and impact of waste in masonry materials, organics, paper and cardboard, plastics and glass.

We also looked at emerging waste streams such as e-waste, lithium-ion batteries, solar photovoltaic panels, and tyres, as these are increasing with little planning in place for their end of life.

The ATSE team researched extensively and consulted with stakeholders right across Australia’s waste and resource recovery sector, including with multinational companies.

We tapped a rich vein of knowledge, practices and case studies demonstrating how, waste stream by waste stream, companies, government agencies and communities are making the transition towards a circular economy.

The overarching principle of the report is that materials have value at all stages of their lifecycle. We found that Australia has a huge opportunity to maximise the value of materials in its manufacturing, retail and waste ecosystem for the benefit of the economy, society and the environment.

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A new policy paradigm

ATSE’s report found one key barrier to this exciting future: right now, Australia does not have the right policy, regulatory and economic frameworks to support the technology investment and innovation our waste industry needs.

Any gains in resource recovery infrastructure depend on investment certainty, which in turn depends on economic feasibility and policy settings. However, we found that there is an immense appetite for change in the sector and rapidly growing consumer awareness of the issue.

Australia’s waste and resource recovery sector has huge potential for innovation lead growth. We have the necessary skills, social readiness and technological possibilities – all we need are the right economic and policy settings.

To create a thriving circular economy, we need a national framework that includes:

  • long-term policy certainty
  • incentive-based policies
  • consistency across jurisdictions and portfolios.

Australian, state and territory governments must work together to revolutionise waste avoidance with targeted government investment and regulatory reform.

Technology-supported solutions

While technology isn’t the only necessary ingredient for a circular economy, it is essential to support and guide the systemic change we need. Australia must develop, adapt or adopt numerous new and existing technologies across a number of sectors, particularly in manufacturing.

In our report, we looked at the application of technologies in three solution areas:

Conscious design

Waste is a design flaw. Good design will avoid the generation of waste, and create products that are durable, reusable, repairable or able to be remanufactured or disassembled once they reach the end of their first life.

The report provides several examples of products that have been designed to last “forever”.

To quote the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where 80 per cent of environmental impacts are determined.”

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Improved product stewardship

We need all stakeholders in the lifecycle of a product to take responsibility for its environmental, economic, health, and safety impacts.

Sensors, big data and analytics will inform these improvements in design and product innovation, material and energy efficiency, maintenance cycles and end of life treatments.

Advanced resource recovery and manufacturing

We need sophisticated and innovative technologies to recover resources, materials and energy from waste that would otherwise be destined for landfill.

Furthermore, the recovered materials must be used in new products or purposes before they can be considered “recycled”.

We need to develop the necessary infrastructure for processing this waste, including sorting, pre-processing, collection and reverse logistics.

Emerging waste streams such as e-waste, lithium-ion batteries and solar photovoltaic panels contain rare metals and toxic materials in much higher quantities than current products. We need the technologies to process them separately and safely.

Dr Susan Pond
Dr Susan Pond AM FTSE FAHMS

Chair, NSW Smart Sensing Network.

Dr Susan Pond AM FTSE FAHMS is a leading scientist renowned for her work in pharmacology, biotechnology, and sustainability. She is currently Chair of the NSW Smart Sensing Network. A former Vice President of ATSE, she co-chaired the Project Expert Working Group for this report.

Phillip Butler
Phillip Butler FTSE

Director, Textor Technologies

Phil Butler is a national leader in manufacturing innovation. He is the creator and director of Textor Technologies, a global textiles exporter. He co-chaired the Project Expert Working Group for this report.