Australia’s linear ‘take-make-dispose economy is unsustainable

Australia generated 75.8 megatonnes (Mt) of total waste in 2020-21. This total included household wastes (14 Mt), commercial and industrial wastes (32.8 Mt), and construction and demolition waste (29 Mt). Australia is one of the largest generators of waste in the world, with each person contributing, on average, 540 kg of household waste per year.

Australia’s resource-driven economy has traditionally relied heavily on the extraction and export of valuable natural resources, with little emphasis on domestic value-adding or manufacturing. At the same time, we import large amounts of consumer goods, which end their life as waste and are lost permanently from circulation.

A linear economy drives an ever-increasing demand for natural resources. A linear economy destroys economic value by trapping natural resources and materials as waste. Waste harms human health and the environment and derails Australia’s net zero emission and sustainability ambitions. A linear economy is also risky for Australia, with geopolitical tensions and climate change disrupting global supply chains, destabilising Australia’s economy.

What is the circular economy?

Unlike a traditional linear economy, a circular economy aims to stop waste from being produced in the first place and keep our resources and materials in circulation for longer. Three fundamental principles underpin the circular economy:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution
  2. Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
  3. Regenerate nature

The circular economy aims to tackle wicked global challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution, using systems- and place-based solutions at scale to drive economic prosperity,
complexity and resilience.

Australia and the circular economy

Australia’s economy is around 3.7% circular. Australia’s circularity index is considerably lower than the global average of 8.6% circularity. Transforming Australia’s predominantly linear economy would drive economically attractive short and medium-term outcomes, with distinct short-term opportunities, while boosting Australia’s self-reliance in critical materials. Australia will benefit from expanding its recycling capacity and building industries that can use secondary materials.

Australia is at a critical juncture in waste, resource recovery and circular economy. The National Waste Policy (2018) and the associated Implementation Plan (2019) were developed in response to disrupted international waste management pathways and domestic waste export bans introduced for plastics, glass, paper, and tyres. Simultaneously, there is an increasing drive for recycling and re-using secondary materials. These policy priorities will be further strengthened by the recent change in government and the focus on national reconstruction and creating sovereign manufacturing capability, including managing waste and resource recovery and adhering to extended producer responsibility of the new industries.

Circular economy science

A truly collaborative and national-scale effort is missing and critical for achieving circularity in Australia. To uplift Australia’s circularity rating to a targeted 30% requires unprecedented collaboration across science, technology, policy, industry, and community. For example, we need to:

  • Build and integrate national inventories for data, material volumes, values, places and flows;
  • Develop and implement new technologies for waste treatment, resource recovery and safe reuse of secondary materials at scale;
  • Enable decision-makers to make well-designed and evidence-based policies; and,
  • Identify, develop, and support new circular markets and business models.

There is also a critical need to integrate material, digital and biological solutions to ensure impact across sectors, industries and regions. Australia needs a shared vision and clear pathway to transition towards circularity. A national vision for a circular Australia can only be attained through a melded network of partners catalysed by Australia’s National Science Agency, the CSIRO.

CSIRO’s Circular Economy Research

CSIRO’s Circular Economy Research initiative aims to create a $30b economic opportunity and uplift Australia’s Circular Economy from 3.5% to 30% by 2030, achieved through impactful and scalable science in a four-pronged approach:

  1. Partner with key industries and industry associations, such as the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association, the Australian Minerals Council, the Australian Business Council for Sustainable Development, Stop Food Waste Australia, and the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme, to broker transition partnerships and form a coalition of the willing and to agree on a transition agenda for Australia’s circular transition.
  2. Develop and share the knowledge base and data required to inform and enable federal and state agencies to develop policies and regulations for circular regions, sectors, and industries in Australia. A Circular Economy Mission will also develop the guidelines and principles required to transition towards circularity, including how we measure the success of national, regional and local-scale circular initiatives.
  3. Enable place-based regional examples of circularity through strong linkages with regional associations (e.g., Murray Darling Association) and regional industries and sectors (e.g., oil and gas and mineral sectors in the Pilbara; vertically integrated agricultural processing hubs) and identify circular economy solutions that are tailored to the opportunities and challenges faced in managing waste and creating economic and employment opportunities at regional scales.
  4. Support Australian businesses in the mining, waste, and agricultural industries, as well as those involved in large-scale regional projects (e.g., Brisbane Olympics 2032), and government agencies (e.g., Defence, Health and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) to transform procurement so that every procurement decision brings us a step closer to a circular economy.

Through tailored, impactful transdisciplinary science, we will co-develop solutions for the complex circular economy and sustainability challenges facing Australia’s sectors, industries, businesses, regions, and communities.