When it comes to waste minimisation and moving material up the waste hierarchy you will find partisan advocates for the roles of the public, private and community sectors. Each will tell you the reasons why their sector’s approach is the best. The private sector will extol their virtues as the only ones capable of efficiently and effectively doing the job. They rightly note that they are the providers on the front lines who actually recover the vast majority of material, that the private sector approach drives innovation and efficiency, and that if waste minimisation is to be sustainable this must include economic sustainability.
The community sector on the other hand will make a strong case to say that their model, because it commonly encompasses social, environmental, and economic outcomes, is able to leverage value from recovered materials to dig deeper into the waste stream, to optimise recovered material quality, and to maximise employment and local economic benefit.
Before recycling and composting were economically viable prospects, community sector organisations led the way, developing many of the techniques now widely used. They remain the leaders in marginal areas such as furniture reuse, running projects that deliver environmental outcomes while providing wider community benefits such as rehabilitation and training for marginalised groups.
Finally, in the public sector corner, advocates will point out that the profit-driven private sector will only ever recover those materials that are able to generate positive revenues, and so cannot maximise waste minimisation, while social outcomes are strictly a secondary consideration. The community sector, on the other hand, while encompassing non-monetary values and capable of effective action on a local scale, is not set up to deliver these benefits on a larger scale and can sometimes struggle to deliver consistent, professional levels of service.
The public sector can point to government’s role in legislating to promote consistent environmental and social outcomes, while councils are major providers and commissioners of recycling services and instrumental in shaping public perceptions around waste issues. The public sector often leads in directing activity towards non-monetary but otherwise valuable outcomes, and provides the framework and funding for equity of service levels.
So who is right? Each sector has good arguments in its favour, and each has its weaknesses. Does one approach carry the day? Should we just mix and match according to our personal taste or based on what is convenient?
Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue is not “which approach is better?” but instead “how might the different models help us get to where we ultimately want to go?”
Smells Like Waste Minimisation
So where do we want to go? What is the waste minimisation end game?
If we think about things from a zero waste perspective, the ideal is that we should move from linear processes of extraction, processing, consumption and disposal, to cyclical processes that mimic nature and that re-integrate materials into economic and natural systems. This is the nirvana – where nothing is ‘thrown away’ because everything has a further beneficial use. In other words what we have is not waste but resources. Or to put it another way – everything has value.
Assuming that we continue to operate in an essentially capitalist system, value has to be translated into economic terms. Imagine if every single thing that we now discard was worth enough money to motivate its recovery. We would throw nothing away: why would we if there was money to be made from it?
So in a zero waste nirvana the private sector and the community sector would take care of recovery almost automatically. There might evolve a community and private sector mix, with each occupying different niches depending on desired local outcomes. There would be no need for the public sector to intervene to promote waste minimisation. All it would need to do would be to set some ground rules and monitor the industry to ensure a level playing field and appropriate health and safety.
Returning to reality, we are a long way from that zero waste nirvana. As things stand, a bunch of materials do have economic value, and are widely recycled. Another layer of materials have marginal value, and the remainder have no value in practical terms (or even a negative value in the case of hazardous wastes).
The suggested shift in perspective is most obvious in terms of how we think about the role of the public sector. To bring us closer to our goal, the public sector needs to intervene in the market to support those materials of marginal value so that they join the group that has genuine value.
Kerbside (or curbside) collection of certain materials, such as glass and lower value plastics, is an example of an activity that is in effect subsidised by public money. These subsidies enable the private sector to achieve environmental outcomes that we deem sufficiently worthwhile to fund.
However, the public sector should not just be plugging a gap in the market (as it largely does now), but be working towards largely doing itself out of a job. If we are to progress towards a cyclical economy, the role of the public sector should not be to subsidise marginal materials in perpetuity, but to progressively move them from marginal to genuinely economic, so that they no longer require support.
At the same time new materials would be progressively targeted and brought through so that the range and quantity requiring disposal constantly shrinks. This suggests a vital role for the public sector that encompasses research, funding for development of new technologies and processes, and setting appropriate policy and price structures (such as through taxes, levies, or product stewardship programmes).
Similarly, the community sector, because it is able to ‘dig deeper’ into the waste stream, has a unique and ongoing role to play in terms of being able to more effectively address those materials of marginal value as they begin to move up the hierarchy. The community sector’s unique value is its ability to work at the frontiers.
Meanwhile, the private sector’s resources and creativity will be needed to enable efficient systems to be developed to manage collection, processing and recycling of materials that reach the threshold of economic viability – and to create new, more sustainable products that fit more readily into a waste minimising world.
In the end, then, perhaps the answer is to stop seeing the three models as being in competition. Instead, we should consciously be utilising the unique characteristics of each so that we can evolve our practices towards a future that is more functional and capable of delivering the circular economy that must eventuate if we are to sustain ourselves on this planet.