Never waste a crisis?

One of the common catch cries of the COVID-19 period (other than ‘where is the toilet paper!?’) has been ‘never waste a crisis’. It’s hard to surf LinkedIn or other social media platforms without being hit in the face with it at some point. It seems obvious that an emergency should turbocharge reforms that address the causes of that emergency. But in the context of the crisis in waste, has Australia already wasted a crisis?

Australia’s waste crisis is not new. We, along with many other countries, have been in the throes of it for some time now. The China National Sword Policy, volatile markets for recyclables, government indecision and delay, consumer behaviour and many more factors mean Australia’s waste has fewer options for a meaningful second life and more is going to landfill.

The market alone understandably has not solved the problem. Current public policy settings, including the National Waste Policy Action Plan and state actions (e.g. VIC, NSW, SA), are insufficient for government intervention to solve the problem either. This is because building and sustaining a truly circular economy takes a village.

Creating a genuinely circular economy will involve managing a substantial shift in the way Australians live their lives and have consumed and managed their waste for decades. This is no small feat and will require the whole nation to get on board, from industry, to government and right down to our delightful ‘bin isolation outing’ hunker-downers.

Sadly, most of the action up to now has been taken as if in a vacuum. Australia lacks a truly national, holistic roadmap to realise a circular economy vision. We cannot expect government alone, or industry alone to solve the waste crisis. This is perhaps why we did ‘waste a crisis’ the first time around, allowing this problem to get more and more out of hand as we struggled under the weight of it.

Now, Australia is confronted with a second crisis, COVID-19 and the mammoth task of trying to rebuild from the catastrophic impacts it has had on the local and global economy. Economic recovery investment can be an opportunity to plug gaps between our waste reduction goals and what is currently commercial, growing the economy while making it more circular – but it is not the only piece of the puzzle needed for a solution.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach or silver bullet and while it is easy to be down on ourselves when we see some of the amazing innovations and strides taken in other countries, we must also remember that Australia is unique in many ways. We have to deal with factors that governments across the globe are not challenged with. Our climate, limited and import-heavy market, geographically isolated location, small population size and large land area present us with significant challenges.

The current global upheaval may feel dark, but one silver lining is the opportunity it gives us to shift away from our use-and-throw model and step into the world of the circular economy. As beautifully articulated by the World Economic Forum: “Humans are resilient and entrepreneurial. We are perfectly capable of beginning again. If we learn from our failings, we can build a brighter future than the one that is currently in store for us.”

Maybe it is time to admit that we did initially waste a crisis, but the question now is: what will we do with the crisis in waste?

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Rachael Wilkinson relocated from Western Australia to Victoria to join the policy team at Ai Group in 2017. Prior to Joining Ai Group she worked for the Fair Work Ombudsman, providing advice to the public on the Fair Work Act. She then spent time living in Vancouver (Canada) where she worked as an Appeal Coordinator, and volunteered with the homeless community.

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