Australia must grow beyond old school waste management models and embrace stewardship in support of circular solutions, writes JOHN GERTSAKIS.
Product stewardship and waste reduction have reached a new level in Australia. Recent announcements by the Federal Government place these issues firmly on the national agenda.
Prime Minister Morrison has not only appointed an Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management – the Honorable Trevor Evans MP – he has also earmarked $20 million for a product stewardship investment fund. The government has also pledged to fund a circular economy hub. These actions and commitments hold great potential if carefully advanced and executed.
As Australia’s focus on waste and recycling issues continues, it becomes apparent that some sectors and industries are tackling the issue with urgency and innovation while others continue to drag their feet. Communities and many local councils are also pushing forward with their desire to cut waste and think more responsibly about consumption. States and territories are in the mix with container deposit schemes, plastic bag bans, levies, ewaste landfill bans and policy papers on what the circular economy means for their communities and business. Of course, progress varies dramatically between these sectors.
So what might this mean for facility management? After all, stewardship has been part of the green building, furniture, flooring and fabrics space for years and in some cases noteworthy products and services have been delivered. The time has come to build on achievements to date and drive new programs and initiatives that are more circular and sustainable. In short, what is needed is a genuine move from the ‘take-make-waste’ mode of production and consumption to real-world applications of stewardship that support circular solutions. We must move beyond ‘old school’ collection and recycling solutions and focus on upstream priorities that are preventative in nature.
Essential circular economy action
How does this translate in simple terms? It requires a much stronger and measurable focus on designing out toxics and waste from the beginning rather than adopting and perpetuating ameliorative and incremental approaches.
Circular thinking also demands that FM decisions aim to keep products and materials going longer. Premature obsolescence of products is a menace that undermines circularity at every turn. We need to move beyond assuming that recycling in isolation is the only strategy or solution. Reuse, refurbishment and repair are key principles that underpin a circular economy, as are alternative business models such as the sharing economy, product leasing and dematerialisation.
Let’s face it: waste resulting from products, their manufacture, use and disposal is fundamentally a design decision. Time to flip the role of design on its head and ensure that it unlocks positive environmental performance rather than being at the core of the problem.
A circular economy approach to product stewardship and FM provides an unmatched opportunity to make technical, management and commercial decisions that are truly regenerative, restorative and low carbon. Just doing ‘less harm’ and minimising impacts has not delivered a sustainable mode of production and consumption. This is unequivocally highlighted by the multitude of local, national and global environmental challenges we’re confronting today.
A product stewardship approach that embodies circular economy principles can start the transition to a much higher level of FM performance, especially in relation products and materials associated with the operational management of properties, sites, buildings and spaces. Anything less is a business as usual approach that is unlikely to deliver the required levels of waste avoidance and resource recovery needed to ensure a sustainable future.
All the glossy reporting and clever PR in the world isn’t enough to hide the fact that we need to see some serious transformation that is circular, sustainable and socially responsible. Easier said than done, of course.
National policies and programs will be needed to enable and support change across industries, sectors and communities. This will require targeted investment, market development, environmentally-oriented procurement and improved waste and resource recovery infrastructure.
Although it’s a displeasing word to many in government and industry, it will also require intelligent regulatory instruments to achieve change. Where programs and schemes work successfully on a voluntary basis, these should continue and be supported, rewarded and promoted.
Australia, however, needs to develop a more sophisticated view of policy and regulation than it has to date if we are to see superior levels of environmental performance in key areas. Poorly formulated regulation is unacceptable, but informed, robust regulation can stimulate innovation and be a catalyst for designing exemplary circular economy outcomes. The relevance of responsible prosperity is paramount in this regard.
The relevance of product stewardship
There are many models of product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) in Australia and abroad. However, its essence remains intact i.e. manufacturers, retailers and brands taking greater environmental responsibility for their products across the lifecycle, including the post-consumer stage. It also requires consumers and other relevant stakeholders to play their part to ensure responsible management and disposal of products.
Assigning producers responsibility both financially or physically for the treatment of post-consumer products can provide incentives to prevent waste at the source and support the achievement of sustainable materials management goals.
Australia is fortunate enough to have legislation dedicated to product stewardship and there is great scope to better use the Product Stewardship Act 2011. It can drive the creation of new schemes and programs in product categories such as mattresses, batteries, solar panels and a various other electrical and electronic products, including Internet of Things devices.
Most importantly, the act recognises the specific needs of different industries and allows for voluntary, co-regulatory or mandatory product stewardship arrangements. This level of elasticity in regulation is noteworthy and provides affected stakeholders with a menu of possibilities when it comes to the design of producer and retailer-funded stewardship initiatives.
Consumption and solutions beyond recycling
Action on product stewardship in Australia has slowed considerably in recent years, especially industry-wide schemes. It is timely, therefore, that the Prime Minister has taken a direct personal interest in recycling and product stewardship matters.
There is no doubt that much more can be done by the Commonwealth to invest in, support and enable product stewardship schemes and this should include the option of regulated take-back schemes, especially for handheld batteries and solar panels, both of which have relevance to facility management.
We all have a role to play in the transition to a circular economy. The Australian Government together with states and territories can adopt a more proactive role and develop robust forward strategies and action plans. They can facilitate improved product stewardship outcomes in a way that reflects circular economy principles and intervenes with proportionate regulation where necessary to plug market failures.
The transition to a circular economy demands collaboration across the supply chain at unprecedented levels and a much more rigorous view of the policies and regulations that can deliver significant change.
Product stewardship has a clear role to play, but only if it moves beyond recycling post-consumer waste and reaches back up the product lifecycle as a way of addressing the root cause – unsustainable consumption.
John Gertsakis is a sustainability practitioner with experience as an advocate, industry adviser and research academic. He is director and co-founder of the Ewaste Watch Institute and director of communications with Equilibrium consultants.