Waste and the circular economy

With human excess driving the extinction crisis, two Glenorchy-based specialists put a powerful case for a waste-free economy.

In case you missed it, science is considering a new name for the epoch we live in now. If it finally agrees, we will be said to be living in the Anthropocene, or the time of humans.

Like earlier geological times, the Anthropocene is marked by a global extinction event. This time the cause is no natural event, but us.

Assuming enough of us survive the Anthropocene to keep civilisation going, future archaeologists will find this time easy to identify. In sediments everywhere they will find traces of burnt landscape and a host of unnatural industrial and agricultural chemicals, including hundreds of different forms of oil-based plastic, which can survive unchanged for millennia.

And near what were urban centres they will find huge accretions of stuff: landfill sites where the waste that didn’t escape into the environment will reveal who we were and what we were about.

Whatever happens to human civilisation, one thing beyond dispute is that even this far into the Anthropocene, when the lessons about excess should long ago have caused us to change our ways, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from degrading Earth’s biosphere.

Since municipal authorities decided to do something about littered, smelly cities and towns, when we discovered coordinated landfill and the flushing toilet, we have been able to conceal our waste from ourselves, living our lives without giving it a thought.

Richer countries have chosen to send their waste for “recycling” to poorer nations. Now that strategy is falling apart as the recipients of our garbage declare they want none of it. Australia is one of those rich nations facing a problem of epic proportions, and growing.

Some people are seriously troubled by the impact of our waste on natural systems. Some have made it the whole focus of their lives, like Brad Mashman and Rena Dare.

Since I last wrote about Mashman and Dare and their Glenorchy waste reduction team in 2018, Mashman took up a Churchill Fellowship to travel with Dare to countries in Europe, where waste is news and the idea of a circular economy is taken seriously by whole countries.

Governments and the rest of us have been complicit in hiding the environmental consequences of human life. Not only do we not know how our waste is suffocating the planet, but we don’t seem to want to know. Turning around this sleepwalk to oblivion is the life’s work of Mashman, Dare and other members of their “Recovery” team.

Last year, Mashman and Dare undertook an intensive study of key elements of the European Union’s push for a circular economy – one in which material goods are reused, shared, repaired, remanufactured and otherwise recycled so as to minimise or even eliminate waste.

The linear economic system we inherited, on which all decisions of government and big business continue to be based, is about taking, making and disposing. In a circular economy there is no disposing. What used to be waste becomes a resource for another product or for regenerating nature.

The EU has created a world-leading framework for transition to a circular economy, with directives for structural reform that demand a close relationship between each key element of a civil society – the community, the government, business and the environment.

Visits to key initiatives in Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom brought home to Mashman and Dare a multitude of possibilities available to Australia, and Tasmania in particular, if we were to embrace a circular economy.

In Belgium, the government sector drives reform with rewards for authentic performance. In Sweden materials recovery included re-use shopping with a strong focus on product design and changing attitudes. The UK is working toward global leadership through industry-society partnerships to recover, repair and restore “waste” products.

Increasing circular economic activity, say Mashman and Dare, “presents an extraordinary wealth creation opportunity for Tasmania, and Australia”. All that’s missing is commitment at the top and a whole-of-government framework that everyone can follow and confidently invest in.

They propose a national circular economy commission, oversighted by the federal Treasury, seeking to reshape the Australian market including obligatory manufacturing standards, product labelling and consumer protection.

For Tasmania, they envision a circular economy packaged as “Brand Tasmania” and driven by all levels of government. It would take in the plastics economy, biological products, tourism and the creative economy, and training in reuse, repair and restoration.

Mashman and Dare’s “Circular Economy Blueprint” deserves the urgent attention of government and business leaders, here in Tasmania and across the country. Theirs is no pie-in-the-sky notion, but a survival strategy for a nation now at the leading edge of a headlong rush to extinction.

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