The road to a circular economy

We often hear the phrase ‘circular economy’. But what does it actually mean?

A circular economy is all about valuing our resources. It’s about getting as much use out of products and materials as possible and creating less waste.

Goods often follow a linear, one-way path, from manufacture to consumption to disposal (usually landfill). But in a circular economy they go from manufacture to consumption and then are recycled or re-used. This keeps products and materials in useful circulation.

Some goods are already on these circular paths. Households send paper, glass and metals for recycling. Clothes are sold as ‘pre-loved’ or ‘vintage’. Neighbours share books in little street libraries. Industries look everywhere for savings to be made by recycling or on-selling‘waste’.

The circular economy is one of our key focus areas. We’re building on the NSW Circular Economy Policy Statement: Too Good to Waste.


Resourceful waste

Waste becomes rubbish. But what if we could use it for another purpose?

The Resource Recovery Framework sets the regulatory requirements for waste to be safely re-used in the circular economy.

The framework includes resource recovery orders and resource exemptions. The orders and exemptions allow some waste to be beneficially and safely re-used outside the NSW laws or regulations that usually apply.

Review of the framework

This year we initiated an independent review of the Resource Recovery Framework. This will make sure the best possible measures are in place for protecting community health and the environment, and that the framework supports our transition to a circular economy.

The review is part of our Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041, which aims to achieve an 80% recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030. The review is being led by the former head of EPA Victoria, Dr Cathy Wilkinson. A wide range of stakeholders has been consulted to examine how the existing framework operates and whether it’s effective and fit for purpose.

Canvassing issues

In late 2021 we consulted with stakeholders – local government, waste groups, industry and businesses – about the scope of an issues paper for the review. The issues paper was on public exhibition from March to May 2022. Submissions made in response to the paper have been analysed and will inform the review’s final report. Dr Wilkinson also met with key stakeholders to workshop issues and note their concerns and suggestions.

We expect the review to be completed early in the 2022–23 financial year. We’ll develop a work program for resource recovery in response to recommendations in its final report.

Remaking the State

a worker inspecting waste coming through a conveyor belt from a processing machineHow do you keep 180,000 tonnes of waste materials out of landfill and within the circular economy?

This was the challenge we faced in March 2020 when the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) banned the export of discarded plastic, paper, glass and tyres. These waste materials quickly started to pile up.

But an innovative solution came soon in the form of Remanufacture NSW. This program, co-funded by the NSW and Australian Governments, was designed to expand the recycling and remanufacturing capacity of industry and businesses across the State.

‘Remanufacture NSW ensures the State is leading by example by maximising recycling and re-use activities’

The first round of grant funding under the program, opened in January 2021 to the tune of $35 million. By August 2021, 19 projects had been awarded $21.5 million. Together these projects will create 120,000 tonnes of additional recycling capacity, enough for about two-thirds of the banned materials.

The successful projects target all materials subject to the export ban. They include re-use of plastics for new applications, tyre recycling, the processing of crushed glass for beneficial re-use, and infrastructure improvements that will reduce contamination during recycling.

A second round of funding will allocate the $13.5 million left over from Round 1. Applications for this closed in April 2022 and are now being assessed. We hope that the successful projects will bridge the remaining 60,000-tonne gap in recycling capacity.

‘Remanufacture NSW ensures the State is leading by example by maximising recycling and re-use activities and meeting the NSW Government’s resource recovery targets, while keeping resources within a circular economy,’ says Sam Lewis from our Waste and Recycling Infrastructure team.

Worn out, Worn Up

Each year the average NSW primary school discards between 100 and 200 kilograms of unwearable uniforms.

panels made from FabtecSydney business Worn Up realised this clothing could be recycled. It collects it, converts it into a durable material called Fabtec, then turns this into products ranging from school desks to pet beds. To date it has processed 50 tonnes of uniforms.

‘Sixty-six schools work with Worn Up, including International Grammar School Sydney. So do seven Sydney councils and one regional council,’ says EPA Organics Manager Amanda Kane.

As well as diverting material from landfill, Worn Up is creating jobs in the circular economy and reducing emissions.

Products range from school desks to dog beds.

In 2021–22, Worn Up received a $100,000 grant from our Circulate, NSW Industrial Ecology Program as an enterprise that diverts materials from landfill. The grant was one of 16 from a total pool of $1.6million.

In the bag

Why is plastic waste such a huge problem? Because it hangs around for a very, very long time.

NSW generates 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year and only 10% of it is recycled. Most ends up in landfill (which takes valuable resources out of the economy) or as plastics litter that accumulates in our land and marine environments

The NSW Plastics Action Plan sets out six actions to reduce the impact plastics have on the environment.

Single-use plastics are a key target. Sixty percent of all litter in NSW is single-use plastics and plastic packaging.

In November 2021 the NSW Government passed the Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Act 2021. This is helping NSW transition towards a circular economy by phasing out the supply of problematic single-use plastics.

What is being phased out?

On 1 June 2022 a ban on lightweight plastic bags (ones less than 35 microns thick) came into effect in NSW.

In November 2022 more items will be phased out. We’ll be saying goodbye to single-use plastic straws, cutlery, stirrers, plates, bowls, cotton buds, expanded polystyrene food-service items and plastic microbeads in certain personal care products.

decorative60% of all litter in NSW is made up of single-use plastics and plastic packaging.

The bans also cover alternatives made from biodegradable or compostable materials, and bioplastics. These materials sound ‘green’ but don’t break down as readily as consumers might think.

The bans will prevent nearly 2.7 billion plastic items from entering our environment and waterways over the next 20 years.

The EPA is the sole regulator of the new legislation and bans.

Education and support

The NSW Government is committed to supporting businesses as they transition from plastics to more sustainable alternatives. It has partnered with the National Retail Association to run an extensive education and engagement program for NSW businesses, through online sessions and in store visits.

The EPA has also partnered with the Civic Futures Lab, which is running the Great Plastic Rescue campaign to help small businesses and community organisation recycle their leftover stock.

Consumers are encouraged to swap single-use plastic items for re-usable and sustainable alternatives. The digital and social media campaign Let’s Stop It and Swap It is running until January 2023.

We’re committed to a fair and considered approach to regulation, so we’re focusing first on awareness and education to help businesses and the community make the switch away from problem plastics.

Let’s get our scrap together

A man with a wheelbarrow of compost in front of a line of people and green lid bins

Forty-three councils in NSW provide a food organics and garden organics (FOGO) service. Residents in these areas can place all food waste and garden waste in their green lid kerbside bins.

But how can we encourage people in these areas to use the services? We pulled together educators from councils across NSW to find the best ways to engage communities. The FOGO Deep Dive Education Project was established to help councils with a FOGO service recover all available food waste, by designing, developing and testing education materials that encouraged residents to put more food scraps in the green lid bins.

The program revealed that some members of the community didn’t know what happened to their waste, some didn’t know food waste was accepted in their bins, and some had concerns about bin hygiene. Only 44% of household FOGO was being disposed of in the green lid bins.

decorativeIt aims to increase the amount of food waste diverted from landfill.

Educating the community

We used findings from the FOGO Deep Dive Education Project to develop Scrap Together – a community education campaign aimed at increasing the amount of food waste diverted from landfill. Scrap Together explains that all food scraps are accepted, why it’s important to keep out contaminants such as plastic bags and packaging, and how to keep caddies and bins fresh.

The campaign was promoted through council communication channels, which allowed for a tailored approach for each community. A successful Scrap Together pilot in three FOGO council areas saw an average of 10% increase in food waste in the green lid bins and lower levels of contaminants.

‘It was fantastic to have such high-quality resources produced by the EPA and ready to roll out,’ says a representative of Clarence Valley Council.

The campaign has been expanded to more LGAs. In April 2022, $240,150 in funding was awarded to 11 projects covering 25 councils. These grants are helping to get more FOGO waste into the right bin.

Tackling illegal dumping

flyer: Report illegal dumping. $70,750 in fines have been issued here. Do not leave your items on the groundIllegal dumping is a serious problem in NSW.

In 2021–22 we continued to help local councils and other managers of public lands deal with the problem through our Combating Illegal Dumping: Clean-up and Prevention Program. This program sits under the NSW Government’s Waste Less, Recycle More initiative.

Round 7 of the program awarded $1.5 million to 21 projects under two categories:

  • funding to support an integrated approach to clean-up and prevention
  • funding to help local councils and public land managers capture baseline data of illegal dumping, to identify dumping trends.

The grants target all aspects of illegal dumping.

They fund:

  • messaging on local and social media about where to legally dispose of waste
  • cameras, signs and lighting at dumping hotspots
  • barriers and other enforcement devices
  • media and educational material to change illegal dumping behaviour
  • surveys and public events to show councils how effective their campaigns have been.

Director, Circular Economy Programs, Kristie Brown says she was impressed with the quality of the projects being funded through the program. ‘The successful applicants included a mix of metropolitan and regional council areas across NSW,’ she says. ‘The projects aim to identify local hotspot sites and tackle illegal dumping to protect the health and environment of our communities.’

decorativeThese activities led to illegal dumping falling in 7 out of 11 of the identified hotspot streets

Waverley Council in Sydney received a grant of $107,000 to deliver the My street is your street program, which included education for strata residents, better educational resources and more media communications across the local government area.