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Australia's recycling waste time bomb

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Waste that Australia must better manage (image via Twitter).

There's much to be done if Australia is to solve its waste management crisis, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

AMID REVELATIONS that Australia’s recycling waste was being boomeranged by Malaysia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a new portfolio.

It's been called Assistant Waste Reduction and Environmental Management portfolio. Its minister is Queensland MP, Trevor Evans.

Not long afterwards, the Victorian Auditor-General released a report saying that there had been a 'lack of action to minimise waste, to invest in infrastructure, and closely regulate the sector'.

The sentiment is entirely correct to reduce waste (or better still, prevent) as opposed to regarding it as a somewhat inevitable by-product of production to be cast out of sight and mind by sending it to a tip or burning it!

Wastes, part of our production maelstrom, come in a host of forms, exhibiting a degree of interchangeability — they either go up a stack or out of an exhaust pipe into the atmosphere, into waterways or find their way onto land.

Waste as a sign of inefficiency: Nature knows best

In nature, there’s no such thing as waste in the sense that the discards from one process are fed into another. Studying how things work in this space gives valuable insights into how to fashion products, processes and policies better adapted to life on Earth — after all nature has been an impressive stayer.

Janice Benyus’ ground-breaking 2002 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, informed by the work of Ian McHarg, has inspired subsequent applications one of the most conspicuous being drag-reducing winglets seen on planes which originated from studying eagle wings.

If waste is a somewhat vacuous concept in reference to nature it’s far from that in our industrial society where it can be a metric for resource productivity or lack of it — less efficient processes tend to have greater waste streams including pollution.

And, in 1997 a report produced by the Club of Rome, dubbed Factor 4, famously aimed through technical innovation to half resource usage (inclusive of energy) whilst doubling wealth. Technologies were there to augment economic growth using less energy, water and materials per unit of output.

Factor 4’s "more-for-less" was a bold attempt to hold the line against the effects of over resource use in advanced economies (pre-China). But things were slipping away.

By 2016, the growth of materials flows far from becoming decoupled from economic growth and GDP was away and running heading over the horizon. Humans were binging out on the planet’s raw materials.

Hitting the refresh button

By that stage the climate emergency was looming large and inefficiencies in production were not only seen as wasteful of resources (affecting global biodiversity which was taking a hit), but there was now a concern about energy-related inefficiencies across buildings, industry, transport and power sectors with their consequent resource drawdowns worsened by the fact that they were fossil fuel dependent.

This prescription formed the basis of Reinventing Fire China – “a groundbreaking energy roadmap” –launched in 2013 in the midst of the factories fueling much Western consumption. And, just this year the UN released its global resources outlook which aims 'to steer us away from waste, overconsumption and ecological harm'.

However, not everyone in the "we must do something" camp would concur that the resource efficiency and regulatory windfalls on offer are sufficient. Amongst which are groups of economists and scientists who, mortified by a vociferous appetite for natural resources, felt it imperative to have a new global economic model, namely degrowth.

This movement deals with important concerns, given that more than half a million land species alone do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

The circular economy

Meanwhile, the idea of a circular economy – one that recovers materials to a high degree, increases product lifespan, and uses renewables – continues to attract attention. Rather than being an abstract concept, it gives people an opportunity to feel they’re doing something about sustainability at an individual level. Corporations are also able to contribute through their sustainability strategies and at a consumption level.

Design for Environment (another nineties metric) is central to both materials recovery and lifespan. It could help steer around some of the present difficulties faced in upcycling materials, where products can defy disassembly to recover their raw ingredients.

In the case of e-waste, this is generally confined to gold recovery. 

Plastic not so fantastic

Like iPhones, even lowly plastics are intricately engineered to meet precise performance standards in their first life. On being comingled with their cousins in an afterlife trundling along MRF belts, these honed qualities subsequently become diffused — bits of one, bits of another.

As a result, they have lower value (unless sorted with precision) and endure end-of-life existences under your feet in pavements, street bollards, park seats, railway sleepers and so on. Or they are sent to waste-to-energy plants.

At least this keeps them out of the sea, especially as microplastics.

Source control

There remain untold quantities of consumer items such as straws and cotton buds, which local supermarkets have or are variously committed to removing from their shelves but there are many others such as disposable women’s razors.

The obvious solution is to go back to the source and refrain from manufacturing or buying such items in the first place.  Or take a lead from the South Australian Government which has just banned plastic straws, cutlery and stirrers.

There’s a capacity too to eliminate plastic packaging altogether — the signature ingredient of those waste massifs. UK chain Waitrose, for example, has given its customers an opportunity to fill their own containers. And, serious attempts are being made in America too.

Lots to do: Will Earth grant us time?

How effective might the circular economy be in curbing the excesses of free-market capitalism?  In particular, does it have the wherewithal to upcycle items (“materials recovery”) on a significant scale without being heavy-handed on energy?

Only time will tell but contemporary developments suggest it needs to be set within a wider context ­­– a legislative platform like the American Green New Deal perhaps (that has since spread to Britain) – and which some view as mapping a path towards degrowth.  

But in rapidly advancing spheres of product innovation, there’s no waiting around for governments to legislate fresh agendas, evaluate future risk or formulate appropriate regulation. The upcoming decades now being gamed by "big tech" are a case in point: we already have procedures like product stewardship and toxicology testing. 

How do such concepts fit, if at all, with the advent of nano-engineered molecular structures? It’s entirely possible that our e-waste bins at recycling centres (or heaven forbid, landfills) could one day find themselves full of quantum circuit boards or micro-drones having nanostructures with unknown environmental consequences.

That’s something for governments to mull as they grapple with mounting piles of e-waste.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

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