From linear to circular: Winning the war on waste

By Esther Bailey

We’ve had a series of wake-up calls around waste in recent years. China’s decision to stop taking 1.3 million tonnes of Australia’s 67 million tonnes of annual waste was the most visible, but it’s the mindset re-set we had to have.

Policy makers are starting to consider the genesis of a circular economy.  But if waste is to follow the same path as emissions, then it seems likely that business must take the lead.

The circular economy is undoubtedly a transformational opportunity – it’s also a logical and physical inevitability. But rethinking and recovering materials at scale is going to take commitment, innovation, teamwork and new business models. This was the consensus during the Green Building Council of Australia’s inaugural Transform conference in Sydney last week.

Holding the value of materials that take so much to make, is obvious. “Don’t put it back in the ground, but keep it going round and round,” said Gayle Sloan.

CEO of the Waste Management & Resource Recovery Association of Australia, Gayle underscored the “resource recovery” element of her remit. She’s championing policies and investment that drive demand for recycled materials and enhance onshore reprocessing facilities.

Resource recovery creates employment – 9.2 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes recycled in Australia, compared to 2.8 for export, Gayle emphasised. The waste management opportunity is manifold.

John Holland’s James Braham, who chairs the Responsible Construction Leadership Group, reminded us that Australia’s current construction and infrastructure boom equated to a “waste boom”. He’s currently leading a project to build a “dating site for waste” that matches materials from construction sites with potential new uses. And early signs for the app are very positive.

But unlike previous attempts, his app doesn’t just match buyers and sellers, it understands the very practical need to make it easy for time-poor workers to make it happen.  The app helps with logistics, safety and compliance, environmental regulations and permits, driver tracking. It brings transparency, simplicity and scale.

Anna Davis, a senior engineer at ARUP, unpacked the serious challenge of office furniture waste. It was only after ARUP decamped from 201 Kent Street that Anna understood the office de-fit challenge. Just 21% of de-fit material is currently recycled. And with 400,000 sqm of office fitouts in the pipeline in Sydney alone, this makes for a mountain of high quality resources, ripe for reuse and recovery. The Better Building Partnership’s Stripout Waste Guidelines, were the first step to thinking about the problem, she said.  She says helped her find partners to assist like But we need more solutions like these, all across the country.

There are multiple ways to tackle the war on waste: avoidance, reuse, recycling, redesign, materials recovery and remanufacture among them.  We’re going to need diverse thinking.

Transition is hard, but the built environment has the scale, governance and economic drivers to do this. And we’ve got heart. We care. It’s down to us to bring the market demand.

We’re also pretty good at lots of elements of the circular economy: measuring, managing, procuring, certifying and supply chain collaboration. And we understand that, when you want to change an entire system, you need lots of solutions and lots of people working together.

We’re not there yet. But by sharing our stories, scaling our trials, and working with government, we can create a shared vision and bring system-level thinking to rethink our materials economy and to win the war on waste.