Five Small Ways That We Can Solve Australia’s Big Waste Problem

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

How we can unify, understand and advocate for change

By Natalie Dean-Weymark

Last month, myself and my other directorial half Luke were thrown into a fish tank at TEDXSYD for a live problem solving activation; attempting to solve one of Australia’s biggest, ugliest and most insurmountable problems at the moment: whatcha gonna do with all that junk? Quite literally.

So set the buzzer for 20 minutes, insert a crowd wearing scarily illuminated sci-fi esque headphones and throw the following problem at six eager - but terrified looking creatives...

An analysis of Australia’s waste exports commissioned by the Department of the Environment and Energy found that Australia exported 324,400 tonnes of waste to Vietnam, Indonesia, China, India, Malaysia and Japan in December 2018.

Challenge: With China already banning the import of foreign waste and more

countries in South East Asia set to follow suit, we must reduce our waste

production as a nation. But how?

Good question…

Well, this problem is big. Like think end of world big. Pun intended. It’s a national embarrassment, it’s complex, confusing and upon deeper analysis, it’s an instant headache. As a marketer, I have an innate faith in the ability of good brands to change the world - so much faith, that we created Compass in the first place. I have never shied away from the point that I don’t think the problem is commercialism or consumption itself, it’s just how we consume and who we choose to support in the process. But somewhere between that idea and where we are now, we have gone very, very wrong.

As a country, we have a really complex waste problem and while it kinda makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall, we need to make the best of our slapdash systems and identify new ways of unifying, understanding and advocating change.

So here are the 5 things that we came up with on the day:

1) Learn how to recycle. Like really learn.

There is no doubt about it that Australia is completely cooked when it comes to recycling. Our systems differ from state-to-state, and in some areas from suburb to suburb. Don’t even get me started on what we actually do with our recycling, that will just make you really mad. It goes without saying that this is absolute crazy talk, but you know what they say, you gotta’ make lemonade and all that jazz. And we have alotta’ lemons people.

Currently around ⅓ of landfill bins are actually filled with recyclable or green waste - showing at a minimum, 33% of people are just picking a bin, any bin, and hoping for the best when it comes to recycling...

Don’t be that person. Do your research on what is allowed in each bin in your state and council, and then do your best to educate others around you, especially if you share bins. You can request stickers outlining exactly what goes in each bin from most local councils, or just be ‘that’ neighbour and put pen to paper. Planet-saving is the one time in which I’ll consider my stance on passive aggressive notes - please just don’t put smiley faces on them, it doesn’t help.

Do your darndest to understand what version of cooked your local council is, and be diligent about it. Be your workplace advocate, educate your friends, and if you’re a parent - teach your kids and help them understand why they are recycling.

On the day, education in schools was raised as a mandatory, in which recycling and conservation would be treated with the same weight as math and english. For some, this will seem extreme, but heartbreakingly so, I see no version of a future in which Earth depletion will not be a big theme for our children in the years to come. If kids are the future, let’s ensure that we are equipping them with the best possible knowledge to understand and operate within the specific future that we have created for them.

2) Educate yourself on how-to read a label

So this point feeds into the above, but it’s an important one. The recycle triangle doesn’t always mean that it goes in the recycling bin. I know, I know… who ever OK’d making the national icon for recycling mean that it only sometimes goes in the recycling bin?! Seriously, wow. But anyway, inspect that little triangle twice as if it’s not there - it likely goes in the bin. It may say ‘Other’ or ‘Commercial Recycling’ which means you have to return it to your local soft plastic return (located at all Coles and Woolworths).

So here’s an idea that we threw around on the day, imagine if we systemised this icon system so that it was clear, concise and understandable - even to a toddler. As really, it shouldn’t require 200 words to explain what the recycling icon means. We need a national, government-mandated icon that exists on packaging as a really quick way to educate consumers about the choices they should be making. Would you ever mistake what the apple icon at the top of your screen meant? No, so let’s do something like that.

3) You don’t need that new thing, and if you do - buy it so you don’t have to buy it again

This is a big one. Stop buying shit. Seriously, we need to slow down the rate at which we are consuming. The national priority should be prevention and re-using products, and as a population we need to hit the breaks on the instant ‘stuff’ economy. I could wax lyrical on all the platforms that exist to swap, share and sell – but motto is just say no. No to the goodie bag, no to the merch, no to the just-in-case-purchase, no to the stuff on sale and no to that thing that you already own by the multiple… It’s hard and seems abrasive at first, but once you do it a couple of times it becomes habit. And habits get momentum, eventually a habit becomes the new normal – not just for you, but those around you too.

If you need it, buy it well and made to last. There are so many brands that doing it well and making it easier to make better buying choices. There are brands out there (many of those who we are lucky enough to call clients) who offer lifetime warranties on stuff. Think about this, imagine the cost of buying a cheap winter coat every year for the rest of your life? Why not just buy one and cut out not only the cost to you, but also all the labour, the resource and the materials for future coats. Simple.

4) You have a voice. Talk a lot.

At this stage of the play, while we can learn to be better at recycling and re-using - the real game-changer is going to come from legislation change.

The insane thing about this problem is that we aren’t inventing the wheel down here in Australia, there are literally countless countries doing it better than us. Copy + Paste should be our tagline when it comes to changing the laws around waste. Without a doubt, there needs to be a nationwide sustainability program. If we look to countries like France, they impose a 10% surcharge on companies that don’t act sustainably, so it becomes a cost to brands for not doing the right thing. We need to make it more financially beneficial for the businesses doing the right thing by our planet.

For example, not all packaging has to be bad, there are bioplastics and other materials out there now that are compostable at home. There are countless good people out there creating better ways of doing things that are giving new options for big businesses, they just need to take that step and the government needs to incentivise them.

To give you some perspective on how we are faring as a nation when it comes to waste management and sustainable practice, in May this year East Timor announced that it would use Australian technology to build a plastics recycling plant to lead the way in becoming a “plastic neutral” country (technology that hasn’t yet been adopted in Australia itself). Bali has also moved to ban plastic bags, straws and styrofoam packaging. Meanwhile, countries as far afield as Malta, Bulgaria and even war-torn Ukraine do a much better job of recycling than Australia in terms of their compulsory government mandated programs.

This state of affairs is unpredictable and quite frankly embarrassing. At present, Australia takes a voluntary, ad hoc kind of approach to our environmental concerns, whereas what’s needed is a systematic and national-wide approach so real benefits can generate momentum. This needs to be prioritised by those in power. We can never deny the power of the original and still the most powerful form of marketing, Word Of Mouth. Know your facts, speak them often. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable – but hey, so is global warming. We need to push back on our Governments to make better choices on behalf of us as a nation. We have never been so empowered to make our voices heard. Just be sure that you are making your opinions heard by those who can make real change - @ your local member, stop them in a street, attend a protest, sign a petition or write a goddamn letter. Just Be Heard.

5) Calling all creatives

We’ve left the issues to government and high-level thinkers for forever now. Perhaps it’s well time that we cast the spotlight on some more right-brain thinkers to solve this problem. Seriously, as an industry we have shed light on a lot of things that previously didn’t have a voice and solved problems far more complex than this. Terrible example, but wasn’t it the creative industries responsible for making smoking cool? Something smelly, expensive and life-threatening. Surely this is almost the same thing, right? Eeep.

A major take out of the tank was that we should focus on turning the waste we’ve got into a resource. There are already companies out there converting waste into raw materials for us to use in building and construction, but it’s currently still untapped. Some companies are making "plastiphalt" bitumen out of plastic pellets and sand from ground-up glass to build roads. If recycled content was being used on large-scale construction such as roads, we would not have any stockpiles. One such road was recently built in Sydney’s south and another is about to start in Melbourne’s north-west, but the current scale of domestic production is far too small to make a dent in our enormous stockpiles. So let’s all get up and around this idea - I KNOW there is some whizz kid that can harness an idea on a mass scale.

We just need to all take on this as our own problem as opposed to someone else's as unfortunately thinking that someone else will solve it is how we got in this mess in the first place.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, even the ThinkTank itself is an example of how agencies are creatively and strategically thinking about how they can bring to life real problems (big shout out to our friends at INVNT for making this happen). We need more of this, less stuff and alot more word-of-mouth advocates for the Planet – but I think even if you’re reading this article, and you’ve gotten this far… we can do it, because we really, really care.