October 31, 2019
Circular economies are making zero waste a reality
Humans consume enormous amounts of natural resources. In 2017, worldwide material consumption reached 92.1 billion tons - about 250% more than the amount we consumed in 1970. We know that 91% of plastic produced isn't recycled, and that it takes an average of 400 years to degrade. This is no longer a matter of wanting to produce less waste. Our planet simply can't sustain it.
In the past 60 years, humans have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic, and almost all of it has ended up in landfill. Increasing human population and consumer demand is leading to a scarcity of natural resources and is forcing companies to rethink not only the way we dispose of waste, but how we create it to begin with. To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal of responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), we have to "do more and better with less".
Enter: the circular economy.
A circular economy is one that has a positive net effect on the environment. For businesses, the goal is to retain as much value as possible from resources and materials used - the opposite of a linear economy of take, make and dispose. It restores any damage done and ensures that as little waste as possible is generated through the production process and the life history of the product.
The idea is simple enough: use only the materials needed, manufacture without creating additional waste, and produce products that can be used again later.
So far, Australia has focused on innovation in recycling, such as banning electronic waste - or e-waste - from landfill. But achieving zero waste isn't possible through recycling existing plastic alone. It requires thinking about a product's whole lifecycle before it is created, with its use and its end use in mind.
A true circular economy looks at the way materials are sourced, the environmental and ethical viability of manufacturing, and the multiple lives a product can have. Your plastic water bottle? It could be reincarnated as a work uniform. Your used coffee beans could become furniture. Australians dump about 6,000kg of clothing into landfill every 10 minutes; what if it could become something new?
It's a complex process. To create a product that can be used and reused, companies must start at the beginning, and work together.
Australia Post has been able to make a difference through partnerships, says its chief sustainability officer, Susan Mizrahi. "It's about looking at your assets and capabilities as a business, looking at your environmental impacts, and partnering creatively to come up with new solutions," Mizrahi says.
One such solution is a partnership with Nespresso. High demand for coffee pods was complicated by a lack of effective recycling. Australia Post worked with Nespresso to design a special satchel, so customers could easily return their used pods.
"It's specially designed so that it won't contaminate other products in the mail," Mizrahi says. "The satchel can mix with other mail and parcels, and it gets sent back to Nespresso. They are now able to collect the aluminium pods in bulk to be able to effectively recycle them."
Mizrahi says Australian businesses are coming up with new solutions that will help facilitate a circular economy; there's no one silver bullet. "But Australia Post has been operating across that spectrum, from innovative recycling initiatives through to collaborating in partnerships."
Australia Post also established the Revamp Network, cross-sector collaboration focused on accelerating circular economy business opportunities and outcomes. Its primary purpose is to evolve opportunities - in particular projects or research - that deliver both commercial value to Revamp stakeholders and environmental benefit by reducing waste to landfill.
That collaboration aligns perfectly with the SDG 17 to build partnerships between governments, private organisations and society. A circular economy contributes in all kinds of meaningful ways. It supports SDG 8 to promote decent work and economic growth: in 2014-15, activities in the waste and resource recovery sector contributed about $15.5 billion to the economy. Investing in infrastructure helps with sustainable development and productivity. It creates better living conditions, reduces waste in our oceans to support life below water, and is a significant positive push for climate action.
Individuals can be part of a circular economy, too. Take these big-picture ideas and bring them into your home or workplace:
· Plan ahead and buy only what you need. It's estimated that in Melbourne alone, 900,000 tonnes of edible food waste is generated every year, which is enough to feed 2 million people for a year.
· Make informed choices. We have access to so much information - find out where your products come from, how they're made, and who benefits from their manufacture.
· Reuse what you've already got. Instead of binning it, look for ways to extend its life cycle.
· Avoid single-use items. Cheap T-shirts sound good in theory, but in 2017 almost a quarter of us threw out clothes we had only worn once. And 90% of our 1 billion disposable coffee cups end up in landfill.
· Support companies aiming for a circular economy. By patronising businesses that strive for zero waste, we send a clear message: this is viable and critical, and together we can make it a reality.
Australia Post has set their sights on 2030 with a new corporate responsibility plan that charts commitments and aspirations to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals