Embracing the Circular Economy: Towards a Sustainable Future

Every year, Australians generate around 76 million tonnes of waste.

Despite considerable progress in material recovery and recycling over recent decades, the sheer volume of waste continues to strain our environment.

This highlights the pressing need for a significant shift away from our traditional economic model, known as the linear economy, towards the more sustainable approach of the circular economy.

What is the linear economy?

For generations, we’ve relied on a linear approach to production and consumption, also known as the ‘take-make-waste’ model: we extract resources, use them for a short period, and then dispose of them. This linear model, which become more prevalent during the Industrial Revolution, has proven unsustainable, accelerating environmental damage, depleting limited resources, and generating immense amounts of waste.

Recycling: A necessary step, but not enough

Recycling has emerged as a crucial step towards reducing our waste footprint. By diverting recyclable materials from landfill and processing them into new products, we conserve resources and reduce the environmental impact of waste disposal. 

In the Port Macquarie-Hastings area, we’ve recovered 21% of waste for recycling via household yellow bins in the last financial year and a further 42% via our green food organics garden organics (FOGO) bins.

Recycling remains a crucial aspect of our local waste management strategy.

But it’s not the ultimate solution to the waste crisis. 

Traditional recycling processes often involve down-cycling, converting materials into products of lower quality than the original. This means that the recycled materials eventually end up as waste again, perpetuating the linear economy.  

With NSW’s 2030 target set to reduce total waste generated per person by 10% (NSW DPE, 2023), we need a more comprehensive solution.

Introducing the Circular Economy

The circular economy offers a more comprehensive and sustainable solution, aiming to keep resources in circulation for as long as possible, minimising waste generation and maximising resource efficiency. Circular thinking encourages us to rethink what we label “waste”,  considering how a product or material might be a continued “resource” through reuse, repair, or repurposing.

Graphic by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

There are three main principles of the model:

  1. Design out waste and pollution

  2. Keep products and materials in use

  3. Regenerate natural systems

The vision, as articulated by the world’s leading circular economy network, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is “an economic system that’s better for people and the environment.”

How Are We Shifting Towards a Circular Economy?

Governments worldwide are embracing the circular economy and creating policies to encourage circular practices. 

In Australia, the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence is developing policies and solutions that help producers and retailers manage the environmental and social impacts of products throughout their life cycle. Currently, there are 99 active initiatives listed in the centre’s Gateway, showcasing positive outcomes such as improved product design and methods to extend product life through repair and reuse.

“The Minister’s Priority List” supports industry by naming products and materials that need urgent product stewardship action, with recommendations and timelines for action ahead of planned regulatory measures. You can learn more about product stewardship and extended producer responsibilities (EPR) via the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water’s website.

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NSW EPA released its circular economy Policy Statement, “Too Good to Waste”, in 2019, promising that the transition to a circular economy will “generate jobs, increase the robustness of the economy, increase the accessibility of goods, maximise the value of resources, and reduce waste.” 

The policy provides a framework for NSW government and industry to use in the development of initiatives that encourage long-lasting product design, maintenance, repair, reusability, product transformation into services, remanufacturing, and recycling.

What Can We Do as Individuals?
While it is true that a complete shift into a circular economy is heavily reliant on Government and industry change, we play a significant role as consumers in shaping this future. Our choices about the products we buy, how we use them, and how we dispose of them can have a profound impact.
Here are some practical tips to adopt circular habits in our daily lives:

Before buying something, consider whether you really need it. Avoid single-use items (not just single-use plastics) and choose products that use less or no packaging.

Before throwing something away, consider whether it can be reused or repurposed. Get creative with finding new uses for old items. Looking for inspiration? Check out our “Rethinking Waste with Rhi” video series and other tips to rethinkng your waste.

Choose products that are well supported for repair and maintenance, from businesses and brands committed to circular practices. Follow the product guidelines for servicing, where relevant, and instead of replacing broken items, see if they can be repaired first. Check out our brand new local repair directory – linking our community to the local skilled repairers in our region

Recycling is still an important part of a circular economy, and it’s important we all recycle right! Keep your recycling loose (no bags, please! They damage our machines), keep it clean (give dirty jars, cans or bottles a quick rinse), and keep it simple – only recycle: 

  • Hard plastic bottles and containers (with recycling numbers 1-7) 
  • Glass bottles and jars 
  • Steel and aluminium cans 
  • Paper and cardboard

And, of course, don’t forget to use your green bin for garden waste and all food scraps. Composting is another great circular solution!

Not sure what goes in which bin? Download our Waste Info App for our comprehensive A-Z guide. 

The transition to a circular economy requires a collective effort from individuals, industry, and governments. By adopting circular principles in our daily lives and supporting circular initiatives, we can contribute to a more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable future. Together, we can move beyond the problems of a linear economy towards a model where waste is not a problem but a valuable resource.

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