The Circular Economy: begin with the end in mind

Some years ago, a much smarter man than me wrote, “begin with the end in mind”. This advice, part of Stephen R. Coveys, best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold over 25 million copies globally and is as relevant to creating a circular economy today, as it was when first published back in 1989.

“Going circular” is a phrase that is often heard when discussing packaging, plastics and recycling. Many countries and Australian states have launched circular economy policies, and as recently as July, the Federal Government launched the Recycling Modernisation Fund—committing $190 million dollars to ‘grow Australia’s circular economy, create more jobs and build a stronger onshore recycling industry’. This is great news. It is an area that the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) is committed to working closely with the Australian federal and state and territory governments to ensure the sector meets consumer and government expectations.

What is the link to begin with the end in mind, going circular and the government’s recent multi-million-dollar investment? Quite simply, to develop an effective circular economy, you must begin with the end in mind. In light of the waste export ban, to ensure post-consumer packaging has a useful ongoing life in a circular economy, it must find a new use and meet the quality standards required by new customers.

Circular economy principles also call for materials to remain in the economy for as long as practically possible and at their highest value use. In the case of packaging, this is packet-to-packet recycling.

While this sounds simple in theory, any packaging that makes direct contact with food, must meet stringent food contact and safety standards that qualify and enable the packaging to attain food grade certification.

Globally, Australia has an enviable food safety reputation that has been the cornerstone of developing strong local agriculture and food processing and manufacturing sectors that employ over 650,000 Australians. How has Australia achieved this? Through the development and adherence to stringent quality food standards.

These same high-quality standards that underpin Australia’s food safety reputation must now be employed when recycling packaging. Simply put, in an effective circular economy, the creation of recycling quality standards is required so that the food, and the packaging containing it, are both subject to the same quality test. If we adopt Stephen R Covey’s ‘begin with the end in mind’, and begin with quality standards in mind, government and secondary processors can confidently invest in infrastructure knowing they will produce material that meets their customer’s needs. Likewise, technology investments in Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) can then occur with confidence that their outbound materials meet their customer’s quality expectations and they will be paid accordingly.

Similarly, standards defining a national kerbside collection system will not only reduce community confusion at the bin, it provides certainty for recycling labelling. Furthermore, a national kerbside system operating in all council’s jurisdictions will provide brand owners with a standard to design packaging to, thereby enabling their packaging to be collected, sorted and processed back into new food-grade packaging. Standards ensure we begin with the end in mind.

This is what Stephen R. Covey would term a win-win outcome, step four of his seven-step process, where better long-term solutions are achieved based on collaboration. I’ll leave this, and the application of his other five steps, for discussion another day.