Closing the recycling loop and the circular economy

Article5 mins10 November 2021By Karen Jamal

Furniture and fences made from worn-out computers. Detergent bottles made from soft plastics. Community gardens fertilised with composted coffee grounds…

These are just three inspiring examples of how Australian workplaces can reduce waste and contribute to a circular economy in which materials are recycled or reused.

Most stories about recycling start with the problem. And there is, undoubtedly, a huge problem. Australia’s mountain of waste continues to pile up – growing 10% over the past few years alone, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and now amounting to 76 million tonnes a year.

Food, electronics and packaging are the three biggest areas for Australia to reap recycling rewards. Why? Because we are among the world’s worst performers in each, according to Planet Ark's A Future Beyond the Bin research report.

Faced with these statistics, people can feel powerless to act. But some powerful partnerships are being formed to inspire people in workplaces around the country to think beyond the bin.

Planet Ark established National Recycling Week in 1996 to encourage Australians to see waste as a resource. By keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible, we not only prevent waste from amassing in landfill, but also reduce the amount of energy and water required to extract and make new materials.

This year, Dexus, Australia’s largest office landlord, and Planet Ark have teamed up to work with building communities to not just close the recycling loop, but to think about how they can eliminate the need to recycle in the first place.

Wasted opportunities?

  • Transitioning to a circular economy could deliver a $23 billion boost to Australia’s GDP by 2025
  • Every 10,000 tonnes of materials recycled creates 9.2 jobs, compared to 2.8 jobs if the materials are landfilled
  • 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions can be avoided in Australia by increasing the recycling of materials with a high embodied energy, like metals, paper, glass and plastic

Source: Planet Ark's A Future Beyond the Bin research report

The invisible becomes visible

Richard Cook is CBRE’s National Sustainability Manager and is responsible for translating Dexus’s ambitious sustainability agenda into action.

“Many sustainability initiatives in buildings, like energy efficiency, are invisible. But waste is a very visible problem. Everyone can see when the recycling bin is overflowing,” Cook says.

“Our challenge is to help Dexus's customers to understand what happens to the materials they put in the recycling bin after they leave the office. That is not so visible – and it is something we are trying to make transparent.”

Cook works with Dexus’s customers in some of the nation’s most iconic buildings. Harry Seidler-designed Australia Square and 1 Bligh Street in Sydney, 480 Queen Street in Brisbane and 360 Collins Street in Melbourne are just a handful of examples.

Good design and sound management practices lay a solid foundation for sustainability, but that is only the start, Cook notes.

“Waste is a collaborative journey. We are only going to change the way we manage waste if we all work together.”

“Rather than just adding on another recycling stream, we seek to collaborate with Dexus’s customers to find ways to ‘design out’ waste so it doesn’t need to be recycled.”

Richard Cook National Sustainability Manager CBRE

Customers are champions

Dexus promotes four separate waste streams at each of its buildings: paper and cardboard; mixed recycling; organic waste; and general waste.

“Recycling these materials well is the first step,” Cook says.

Dexus also encourages building users to think before they bin with a range of additional programs. A quarterly e-waste collection service, for example, tackles the tricky problem of batteries, 8,000 tonnes of which end up in landfill each year.

“We have a lot of very engaged and motivated people who continually ask: ‘What else can we be doing?’” One Dexus customer, for example, has a soft plastics recycling program, while another works with MobileMuster.

“It’s really exciting to see tenants think about the materials that are being generated within their workplaces and proactively look to address that. We can have gold-plated bins, but if we haven’t communicated the message properly and inspired people to participate, then our efforts are wasted.”

Recycling rewards

For people thinking about taking the next step beyond everyday recycling, here are a few smart, sustainable ideas:

  1. Transform toner cartridges: More than 49 million cartridges have been recycled through Cartridges 4 Planet Ark since 2003. The toner cartridges are transformed into everything from fencing to outdoor flooring, road surfaces to pens and ink. “They are super easy to recycle – it just requires a bit of effort at the start,” Cook says.
  2. Recycling coffee cups: There are times when everyone needs to grab and go. Simply Cups has collected more than 21 million empty vessels from workplaces and schools around the country and upcycled them into outdoor furniture, traffic solutions, drinks trays and the world's first reusable cup made from recycled cups. Dexus is looking to roll out Simply Cups to each of its properties.
  3. Keep coffee grounded: Kua Coffee has diverted more than 5,500 kilograms of coffee grounds from landfill in a ‘closed loop’ service. Ethically sourced coffee is delivered in reusable drums and all coffee grounds are collected for composting and then used as fertiliser in local community gardens.
  4. Design out waste: Planet Ark Paper Unwrapped is the first and only 100% recycled unwrapped copy paper on the market. Rather than wrapping each reem of paper – which itself is made from 100% recycled paper – the 2,500 sheets come loose in a recycled box. “There’s no unnecessary packaging, and that waxy paper can often be a contaminant that can damage recyclability. This one product solves a number of problems.”

Recycling, done well, is one important step in the circular economy and there are dozens of partners ready to help companies ramp up their recycling. But recycling doesn’t hold all the answers, and people need to think differently to disrupt the ‘take-make-waste’ approach.

Of all the work Dexus does to improve sustainability in its buildings, waste is the one that requires the most input and interest from occupants. Together, with its customers, Dexus can find smarter ways of doing things.

Read on for more insights

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