As the nation enters its first recession in 29 years, Australians might be open to rethinking their habit of buying a new item instead of repairing the old.
The COVID-19 slowdown gives us a golden opportunity to “reset our materials economy along more sustainable lines”, says human geographer Ruth Lane. She’s overseeing a research project investigating the economic, environmental and social benefits of reusing goods that would otherwise be discarded – a key element in moving towards a circular economy.
Anyone who buys jars at garage sales, places old clothes in charity bins, or leaves their DVD player on the nature strip is already participating in the circular economy’s give and take. Dr Lane first became interested in its possibilities when she moved to Melbourne from Canberra in 2004, and saw the festive mood that overtook her neighbourhood on hard rubbish day.
“It was part of an urban culture, and people looked forward to it ... I found it intriguing. There's a latent creativity in waste, it's full of possibilities.”
Interdisciplinary approach to metals recycling
In 2014, she began investigating recycling as part of the Wealth from Waste CSIRO cluster research program, in which she collaborated with researchers from three other Australian universities and Yale University to study the potential to increase metals recycling in Australia.
Dr Lane led the interdisciplinary Monash research team, which included engineers, environmental lawyers, and economists. “We were looking at everything from precious metals in household electronics, through to steel in buildings.”
They examined strategies for rescuing metal that might otherwise go to landfill. Scrap metal is a profitable global industry, she says, and also a field favoured by money launderers. “You'll find the price of scrap metal listed on the London Metals Exchange. When that price goes up, you'll see a lot more scavenging of your hard rubbish collections.”
Australians generate more waste than most other developed countries – an estimated 560 kilos of municipal solid waste per capita from households and municipal governments. We also recycle less.
China’s 2018 announcement that it would stop accepting our waste for recycling has forced the nation to reassess its approach, but progress has been slow – for instance, our plastic recycling rates remain below 10%.
According to a plastics recycling survey, in the 2017-18 financial year Australians consumed a total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastics, of which only 320,000 tonnes was recovered. Rethinking what we buy, how it’s packaged and where the waste goes is crucial and overdue.
“There's a capacity now for micro factories that can hoover up particular kinds of waste streams and develop new manufacturing materials.”
But good work is taking place. Dr Lane’s scrap metal research brought her into contact with the National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations (NACRO), which will be a research partner for her circular economy project.
“I really wanted to work with these guys, because they’re already involved in the circular economy,” she says. “They're real champions of it.”
NACRO estimates that 285 million products are already reused in Australia each year, diverting 622,000 tonnes away from landfill. “They’re exemplary at facilitating reuse,” Dr Lane says.
NACRO includes national charities with well-known thrift shops (such as the Savers stores run by the Salvation Army), to pop-up repair cafes, or the small enterprise in Melbourne’s CBD that recycles used office equipment.
Dr Lane wants to provide a more accurate picture of their economic and social contribution – much of their work would not be possible if profit was their only motivation, she says. “For the first time we’ll have a really good grasp of the sector as a whole.”
For instance, social enterprises, such as Outlook Environmental, not only sort, sell and recycle discarded household goods at local government transfer stations, they also provide disability employment, training and social benefits for their workers, many of whom are unable to work long hours.
Outlook has patented its unique business model, “which is all about maximising employment opportunities for multiple people”, she says. “I think they're really interesting.”
Her project’s second aim is to provide a more accurate picture of what goods are already reused in Australia. For the past 10 years, the national waste report has provided a breakdown of what goes into landfill, and what materials are recycled, but we don’t have the same data on reuse.
“A meaningful metric for reuse has to categorise product types and numbers of products,” she says. “Reuse is critical. If we start producing more durable products, then we need to mainstream the circulation of second-hand products to a much higher extent than what we currently do. And we need to mainstream the capacity to repair products, to keep them in use and in circulation.”
In 2020, the European Union introduced a new Circular Economy Action Plan. It mandates that manufacturers must produce goods that can be repaired. The strategy aims to reverse the planned obsolescence that has been a feature of consumer culture for the past two generations.
Dr Lane doesn’t foresee that a circular economy will end capitalism, but she can see it modifying capitalism. She predicts that the future economy will place greater emphasis on service provision, rather than consumption – where neighbours share cars that are built to last, for instance (rather than buying their own private status symbol), and where repair skills are highly valued.
She also foresees the advent of factories specialising in the manufacture of recycled goods.
The changing landscape of manufacturing
A PhD student linked to the circular economy project (to be supervised by urban design and planning professor Carl Grodach) will examine how “reuse organisations and their facilities interact with other industrial sectors”, she says.
“Manufacturing is changing, and this is where this space is becoming quite exciting,” she says. “There's a capacity now for micro factories that can hoover up particular kinds of waste streams and develop new manufacturing materials.”
The reuse sector is multi-faceted – it includes the profitable vintage clothing and furniture sectors, for instance – as well as op shops. And Dr Lane believes its economic contribution is under-recognised. About half of the nation’s charity shops are in country towns, where incomes tend to be lower than in the city, and where they’re loved institutions.
“Measuring the benefits of reuse in the circular economy” is an Australian Research Council Linkage Project. Dr Ruth Lane is overseeing the research for Monash University.
On Tuesday, 8 September, Dr Lane will be part of a panel discussion on the contemporary challenges and future opportunities in working to deliver better environment and sustainability outcomes in Australia. You can register for the event here.
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