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Waste in the new green economy

With reports from the US-based Global Footprint Network that from last weekend, August 21 in fact, humanity had consumed all nature’s “ecological services budget” for the year, it’s perhaps timely to look at the opportunities presented by ‘greening’ economies rather than just achieving low carbon economies.

One element of a more sustainable economic paradigm is waste management and recycling, according to a recent briefing paper form the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), a public interest think tank.

The paper looks at issues raised in the United Nations’ Green Economy Report from an Australian perspective and provides sustainable economic policy solutions in four areas: water, energy, cities and urban transport, and waste management and recycling.

CPD suggests the breakneck growth of global economic activity is causing us to come up against multiple environmental limits at once, not just the effects of climate change.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in statistics for the volume of material going to landfill as opposed to recycling in Australia since 2002.

The CPD report drew on information provided by Engineers Australia in its submission to the National Waste Policy, in 2009. It showed the rate of recycling had not increased between 2002-03 and 2006-07 at anywhere near the rate it had in the five years up to 2002. Perhaps more significantly, over the same period, the decline in landfill rates that began 1996 did not continue after 2003.

“It’s a mixed story,” said the author’s report and fellow of the CPD, Ben Eltham, “Obviously there’s been success in increasing the volume of recycled material but there hasn’t been the same success in reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place…the economy as a whole grew rapidly during that time.”

The CPD paper also labels kerbside recycling as part of the “old green economy” and calls for new approaches.

“One of the areas that we would consider part of new green economy would be extended producer responsibility [EPR], where government policies are seeking to mitigate negative externalities that are entailed by waste, by waste disposal and waste management,” said Eltham.

His paper describes waste as a “classic negative externality”, a social and environmental cost of economic activity that is not fully priced into products or reflected in producers’ bottom lines. EPR would turn that around.

“Extended producer responsibility policies also create an incentive for them to redesign their products with resource efficiency and the environment in mind.

“Such change, while reducing waste management costs, should also reduce, materials use and enhance product reusability and recyclability.”

Engineers Australia said in its submission that development of product stewardship or lifecycle approaches has been “exceptionally slow” in Australia, blaming “the unwillingness of the Federal Government to take action on necessary safety net regulations covering non-participants”.

That changed in July with the agreement of the states and the Commonwealth to introduce framework legislation to provide exactly that kind of architecture for sectors looking to establish product stewardship schemes, such as for e-waste and tyres.

The CPD says there is a long way to go. Its economic policy solutions include the removal of perverse incentives, like underpriced landfill. It also suggests funding investment in recycling and waste diversion infrastructure; strengthening regulations and design standards to improve the through-life and end-of-life value of industrial and consumer products; and promoting EPR.

Source: Inside Waste Weekly

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