The combined effort and buying power of local governments could be key to achieving circular economy and sustainability outcomes, as Australia makes headway with its Federal Waste Strategy – according to Sam Wylie of Logan Council in Queensland.
Forcing the hand of waste producers through ‘sustainable procurement’ – where environmental factors are included in purchasing contracts – partnerships between local governments could engineer waste management solutions before unrecyclable landfill products are produced, he says.
“It is like that old metaphor. The sink is overflowing – what do you reach for first, the tap or the mop?” Mr Wylie said ahead of the Sustainability in Government Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.
“A lot of the waste management solutions currently being championed are centred on clearing up the mess we have already created and continue to create. If every local government united and said, ‘As part of our waste and procurement contract stipulations, tenders for major contracts or services must outline their sustainability and recycling plans and consider how your products and services may present an environmental problem in the future’, then we could tackle most of the problem at the root, stepping towards a circular economy from a much stronger policy base.”
Justin Bonsey, Strategic Lead, Resource Recovery, at the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC) agrees with this approach.
“Local governments are playing an increasingly active role in the materials value chain and energy market, leveraging a range of tools within their sphere of influence to drive materials efficiency, abate carbon, save money, and increase community resilience,” he said.
“[In the context of waste management] Councils can use their purchasing power to demand that the materials and goods they buy contain Australian-recycled content, which stimulates both the supply and demand sides.”
While sustainable procurement is already practiced in Australia, Mr Wylie believes a government-wide push towards more widespread use could lead to better negotiations with producers. It could even give environmental factors equal weight to price and quality considerations in contracts.
Joint procurement could be even more powerful, as demonstrated in SSROC’S ‘Procure Recycled: Paving the Way’ project. This landmark 16-council procurement of asphalt with recycled crushed glass was designed to create a local closed-loop market for kerbside glass, stimulate investment in essential processing infrastructure, and save money for councils.
The project was a big success. It created a market for the equivalent of about 80 million glass bottles per year, cut transport emissions by 1,600 tonnes CO2-e per year, and saved councils up to 20 percent from previous contracts. The organisation is now aiming to do the same with crumb rubber asphalt in partnership with Tyre Stewardship Australia.
In the context of waste management, this creative utilisation of buying power could minimise waste and relieve pressure on resource recovery efforts. While Australia’s resource recovery rate is improving, the latest statistics show that more work needs to be done to meet the 80 percent target outlined in the Federal Waste Strategy. Excluding fly ash, the rate of waste successfully diverted from landfills has grown from 51 percent to 64 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile waste recycling per capita has increased 9 percent since 2016.
In spite of resource recovery progress, pressure to reduce waste is mounting. COVID-19 led to an increase in packaging waste in some sectors; and, with the rise of fast fashion post-lockdown, almost 80 percent (305,000 tonnes) of unwanted textiles were sent to landfills last year – enough to fill the Sydney harbour.
“The statistics of fast fashion and textile waste are mind blowing,” Mr Wylie said. “It is clear that every facet of industry has a role to play in achieving our waste management targets – and it is up to local government to influence that.”
Mr Bonsey agrees that the role of local government is pivotal in increasing sustainable industry practice. Outside of Council’s sphere of influence, an outcomes-based legislative and regulatory framework is needed, he says.
“This could encourage lower consumption, strong product design, stewardship standards for reuse and repair, and alternative solutions for residual waste”.
Alongside, sustainable procurement, Sam and Justin say a range of local government measures are enabling “great leaps” towards net zero and landfill diversion targets. Among them, multi-council renewable energy contracts, and service innovations to collect problematic materials.
Hear more from Sam Wylie and Justin Bonsey at the Sustainability in Government Conference, hosted by Informa Connect. This years’ event will be held 15 June at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney. Register now to secure your seat.