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. At the same time, we import large amounts of consumer goods, which end their life as waste and are lost permanently from circulation.

Waste impacts the environment and doesn’t support Australia’s net zero emission and sustainability ambitions.

A circular economy can reduce pressure on natural resources and provide economic value through the redesign, reuse and reduction of waste.

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 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 circular economy rate is around 3.7 per cent. Australia’s circularity index is considerably lower than the global average of 8.6 per cent 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. Australia has a 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

To uplift Australia’s circularity rating to a targeted 30 per cent 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. A national vision for a circular Australia can only be attained through a network of partners supported by the latest science and technology.

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