CSIRO’s new circular economy roadmap defines a plan of action for Australia

By Lucy Jones  February 4th, 2021

Mapping out a path forward for plastics, glass, paper and tyres.

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Australia is still at the beginning of its journey towards circularity. The final destination: a fully circular economy that cycles resources sustainably, creates jobs and leaves the earth better than we found it. So how do we get there? First, we need to establish where we are and what direction we need to head in.  

The CSIRO has developed a detailed circular economy roadmap for plastics, glass, paper and tyres. This piece of research does three pivotal things: 

  1. Pinpoints our current location on the map by determining key challenges and opportunities across sectors.   

  2. Quantifies the economic, social and environmental benefits of a shift to circularity. 

  3. Identifies the strategies, enablers and opportunities that will get us from where we are now to where we want to be.  

Commissioned by the Australian Government off the back of its commitment to ban the export of plastic, glass, paper and tyre waste, the report measures how prepared industry is to process these materials onshore. In addition, it asks the bigger question of how we might turn these waste streams into resources and build a circular economy in Australia.   

"Science can transform our economy into a circular one that renews and reuses what we previously discarded, and indeed a virtuous circle that creates higher paid jobs, advances new Australian technology, and protects our environment,” CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall explained.  

"We're on a mission to make it real. The practical path laid out in this roadmap is part of CSIRO's mission-led focus on using science to solve our greatest challenges while driving our economic recovery and building future resilience." 

The roadmap aims to kickstart circularity in Australia by showing how circular business models and design principles can create value from waste and deliver economic, employment and environmental benefits for our country.  

Why do we need a roadmap?  

Australia needs a clear, comprehensive, evidence-based and actionable circular economy strategy. Our research shows there is still a lack of clarity about what the circular economy is and how its principles can be implemented. Roadmaps are one tool that can help remove the confusion around circularity and show us a clear path forward.    

CSIRO’s circular economy roadmap was developed to support the government’s waste export bans and commitments to improving the capacity of Australia’s waste and recycling sector. It establishes a baseline for circular economy activity by identifying key challenges and opportunities across the country’s four major waste resource streams. These insights were generated through in-depth interviews with 83 representatives from industry, government and academia.   

In addition to providing an integrated circular economy strategy for Australia, the roadmap sets a timeline for transitioning plastics, glass, paper and tyres. For each material, CSIRO have developed a list of practical actions that can be taken in the short (next two years), medium (next five years) and long term (next ten years). These recommendations give industry and government a place to build from.    

Where are we now? 

In 2019, Australia exported 4,400 kilotonnes (kt) of waste, including 1,400 kt of plastic, paper, glass and tyre waste. As waste export bans come into effect, it is vital to consider current rates of consumption, recovery and recycling of these materials to provide an understanding of what onshore processing capacity we will need to develop. The roadmap provides these figures along with the estimated revenue lost from landfilling or exporting waste. The below data helps us understand where we are now and incentivises the shift to circular models.  

Plastic: 

  • In 2017-18 Australia consumed 3,400 kt of plastic. 

  • Australia has a plastics recycling rate of 12%. 

  • Recovery rates vary significantly across different plastic types. 

  • In 2018–19 Australia exported 187,354 tonnes of plastics with estimated value of $43 million. 

  • Local processing capacity needs to increase by 150% to handle waste that was previously exported. 

  • Australia is losing an estimated $419 million a year from unrecovered plastics. 

Plastics is the area that may require the most work given the volume of plastic waste that was previously exported. The roadmap highlights the need for infrastructure to process plastic waste onshore and boost manufacturing capacity hand-in-hand with strategies to grow the market for recycled plastics. Changes also need to be implemented higher up the waste hierarchy in the design, consumption and collection phases. The roadmap also recommends problematic plastics be avoided entirely through single-use plastic bans or by designing out the need for certain materials.  

Glass:  

  • 1,280 kt of glass packaging is consumed each year and approximately 181 kt of flat and architectural glass is produced. 

  • While 78% of post-consumption glass packaging is collected and 50% recovered, only 36% is reused in local glass packaging products. 

  • For every tonne of glass collected through kerbside recycling, half a tonne of greenhouse gases, 2.3 KL of water, over 6 GJ of energy and nearly a tonne of solid waste to landfill are saved compared with using virgin materials. 

  • There is potential to use glass cullet (a recycled glass product) for 80% of new glass packaging manufacture. 

While glass will not be significantly affected by waste export bans, there is huge potential to improve reuse and recycling rates by implementing a circular economy approach. The roadmap finds that collection, sorting, logistics and maintaining the quality of glass through its lifecycle are the main barriers to glass recycling. They suggest that nationally consistent approach to labelling products — using the Australasian Recycling Label — could help divert glass from landfill, improve recycling rates and decrease the need for virgin material use in new glass packaging. To boost the use of recycled glass materials in construction, the report suggests new government procurement standards be set for recycled content use.   

Paper: 

  • In 2018-19, Australians consumed an estimated 4,318 kt of paper, paperboard, and paper products. 

  • Of these products, approximately 62% were recovered and 38% went to landfill. 

  • 60% of recovered paper was processed in local mills while the remaining 40% was exported. 

  • 94% of the paper reprocessed in Australia was turned into new products with a small percentage going to compost or waste to energy. 

  • Recycled paper fibre can be used up to seven times before degrading. 

  • The cost savings of recycling paper fibre rather than sending it to landfill is around $70 per tonne. With 1,642 kt sent to landfill each year, that’s $115 million per annum. 

As with plastics and glass, a key challenge for recovering paper is contamination that occurs in the co-mingled recycling process. The roadmap suggests improving separation at source through consumer education and by installing multi-unit bin systems in public places. Investment is also needed to develop technologies for reprocessing paper and improve the sorting capacity of recycling facilities, particularly in regional areas. Products should also be redesigned to eliminate composite materials, problematic paper coatings and hazardous dyes. CSIRO also recommends that individuals and businesses support the shift to digitisation of information and the ‘paperless office’.   

Tyres:  

  • In 2018-19 465 kt of tyres reached their end of life in Australia 

  • Of these, 55% were exported, 31% landfilled, disposed onsite or stockpiled and 14% were processed for domestic recycling 

  • Most used truck and passenger tyres are exported while most off-the-road tyres (tyres designed for use on unpaved surfaces) are disposed onsite 

As it stands, each state and territory has different standards for tyre recovery. While the National Tyre Stewardship Scheme was established in 2014, it is not mandatory. This results in a lack of transparency and tracking when it comes to tyre quality, disposal and exports. In addition to introducing a mandatory national tyre stewardship scheme, the report highlights the need for consistent collection systems for all tyres, improved design of tyres that use less materials and are more easily repaired and an increase in the use of tyre-derived recyclates for civil engineering. The circular economy for tyres can also be supported by a shift away from tyre-based transport towards public transport and ride-sharing services.  

Across all four materials, five common barriers to circularity were identified: 

  1. Loss of source material through sub-optimal product design, consumption, and collection. 

  2. Lack of reprocessing capacity.

  3. Lack of end markets for secondary materials.

  4. Lack of consistency across jurisdictions.

  5. Lack of system-wide capability to support a circular economy. 

The cultural preference for buying new products was also identified as a key barrier to change.  

“None of these things will be possible without a national culture that thinks ‘re-use’ before ‘throw out’ and acts accordingly,” the roadmap states.  

“Every channel should be used to support that vision, to change mindsets and guide behaviours both at home and at work. That extends from clear and consistent product labelling and recycling instructions, up through industry and local initiatives, and ultimately to national campaigns, metrics and targets.”   

Where to from here?  

The roadmap finds that while each material will face its own unique challenges on its circular economy journey, there are five overarching strategies that will enable Australia’s transition to a circular economy. These are:  

  1. Improving product design, collection, and sorting outcomes. 

  2. Building capacity for reprocessing and manufacturing of recycled products nationally. 

  3. Market development and innovation to grow the circular economy.

  4. Harmonising standards, regulations, and messaging across jurisdictions.

  5. Enabling the circular economy vision.

More detailed explanations of these strategies and sub-strategies can be found in the roadmap.  

We are still at the beginning of our journey  

This roadmap is intended as a starting point for a more unified approach to circular economy action in Australia. Implementing the report’s recommendations will require ongoing collaboration between government, industry, the community and research bodies.  

Head here to read the research report in full.  

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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