Circular economy – the policy context

By Terri Butler

14 November 2022

These are opening remarks for the Circular Australia event "Circular Economy Metrics Dialogue"

You can read the reports underpinning the event, and see a recording of the event, on Circular Australia's website at

Check against delivery

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I am coming to you from Jagera country.

I am proud to chair the board of Circular Australia and to have the opportunity to work with some strong thinkers and dedicated professionals who are collaborating to scale up the circular economy.

Today’s event sees the launch of our latest circular economy metrics research, conducted in partnership with the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), University of Technology Sydney (report authored by Dr Monique Retamal, Dr Simran Talwar, Dr Helen Lewis). I thank the Institute for their terrific work in relation to this research and in relation to promoting the importance of circular economy.

I’m also grateful to Dr Heinz Schandl from the CSIRO, Azaria Dobson Director of Activation Precincts and Partnerships with the NSW government, and Ian Overton from Green Industries SA, for participating in today’s panel discussion (moderated by Prof David Giurco). I’m really looking forward to hearing from them. I’m also proud to have the opportunity to work with Ian in another of his capacities, as a member of the Board of Circular Australia.

I would particularly like to thank Circular Australia’s powerhouse CEO, Lisa McLean, for all her work in making today happen, and more broadly for her contribution to driving the circular economy conversation nationally.

Today I’ve been asked to speak briefly about the national policy context for circular economy.

I thought I would start by reflecting on some of the relevant election commitments that Labor made. I was the shadow minister for the environment at the time and I was very fortunate to work with Josh Wilson MP, the member for Fremantle, who was the shadow assistant minister and one of the parliament’s strongest advocates for circular economy.

Before the election Josh wrote a strong piece for the West Australian regarding the aspirations and commitments of a future Labor government. In that piece he wrote

“It is in Australia’s national interest to build a circular economy that sees valuable material reincorporated in new onshore manufacturing processes, while preventing the environmental harm and carbon emissions that come from a linear production-to-landfill approach.

We know that creating a circular economy will create jobs and build resilience in our supply chains, while reducing carbon emissions and environmental pollution.”

He went on to say:

“Labor recognises that our community expects progress towards a circular economy and that our waste & resource management sector is ready to lead that transition. We will help address the missing pieces of the circle, especially with respect to the pull-through demand for recycled content.  As part of Labor’s Future Made in Australia policy we will ensure federal government procurement includes recycled content, with support for industry when it comes to material specifications and research. We will lead cooperative work with the states and territories on harmonisation of container deposit and single-use plastic ban schemes, and pick-up the stalled work on data collection and packaging stewardship.”

(emphasis added)

These commitments formed part of our broader suite of environment, procurement, and industry policies.

Now, I am pleased to say we have a new Labor government that is setting about working on implementation. There are strong, active ministers in key portfolios – people like Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen, Ed Husic, Katy Gallagher, and Tony Burke. I have singled them out for mention here as I will speak about policies falling within their portfolios, but there are many other talented and driven people across the ministry and caucus whose portfolios, electorates and interests are engaged by the need to scale up circular economy. In fact, I suspect everyone in this event will believe that no parliamentarian can afford to ignore the opportunities that scaling up the circular economy will bring.

So, I would like to talk about some of the work the new federal government is doing.

The new Labor government has established its Buy Australian Plan, a procurement policy. It has also established the promised Future Made In Australia Office, in the Department of Finance, to support delivery of the plan, and actively support local industry to take advantage of government purchasing opportunities.

Circular economy advocates should be pressing the new Labor government to make good on its pre-election commitment to make sure that the procurement policy promotes circular economy practices, including by engaging with the Future Made In Australia Office and its responsible Minister, the Minister for Finance.

Labor has also said it will establish a Secure Australian Jobs Code for government suppliers, requiring them to meet standards regarding job security, and wages and conditions. That Code is also proposed to require them to engage in ethical and sustainable practices including in relation to environmental sustainability. The commitment was confirmed at the Jobs and Skills summit held recently. Circular economy advocates should call on the government to ensure that the Code’s contemplation of environmental sustainability should include circular economy principles.

The new government has a strong commitment to manufacturing and industry development. They committed to establish a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund to support projects that create secure well-paid jobs, drive regional development, and invest in our national sovereign capability, broadening and diversifying Australia’s economy. Circular economy advocates should call on the new government to make sure that circular economy practices are incorporated in those projects and in industry policy more broadly.

One of the most significant differentiations between the new government and the former coalition government is overt and proactive commitment to acting on climate change. We can see that from the new government’s engagement with COP and the bid to co-host COP 31 in 2026 with Pacific nations, and we can see it from domestic climate policies. Everyone at this event knows that scaling up the circular economy is crucial for emissions reduction and action on climate change. Circular economy advocates should call on the new government to incorporate circular economy thinking continuously and deliberately into climate action.

Australia should also continue to act internationally to promote action that tackles plastic pollution, and we should have broader aspirations to support circularity across the globe.

There is a significant role for government in relation to recycling and product stewardship. These measures are of great importance and real vigour must be applied to them. The shortcomings of the previous government’s implementation of the National Waste Policy Action Plan[1] and the National Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure,[2] identified in recently published reports, must be addressed. At the same time, we need governments to understand that recycling and stewardship are not the end of the story and that a genuine circular economy approach is needed.

The new government should also, as foreshadowed in the pre-election commitment, focus on improving data collection and measurement. We all know measurement drives management, interest, policy, and action. That’s why today’s discussion is so critical: we need metrics as a means of seeing how far we have come and building aspiration for the future.

It was exciting to see the new government’s first budget recently. Circular Australia welcomed the suite of climate and circular economy measures including the $60 million commitment for plastics and the hospital waste target.

It is terrific to see that the nation’s environment ministers, of all colours, at their meeting in Brisbane on 21 October 2022, included circular economy as one of three ‘landmark commitments’ made in the meeting. Specifically, they committed[3]

To work with the private sector to design out waste and pollution, keep materials in use and foster markets to achieve a circular economy by 2030.

I suspect most people at this event will have read the communique but if not, I commend it to you. There were specific actions to back in the commitment, and an acknowledgement that a waste management and recycling approach was not enough, instead saying:

we must do more to prevent waste, including better product design and more efficient production processes.

I know many of us would like to see, in the future, in addition to the references to product design and manufacturing, an acknowledgement of the importance of service and business model design in increasing circularity. Elevating the national conversation on circular economy and on how to measure circularity can help in building ambition and sparking inspiration for greater change, giving rise to greater impact.

I look forward to the panel and I thank each of you for being here today.


[1] Australian Government Implementation of the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

[2] Review of the National Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011 (NEPM). The Australian Government has undertaken an independent review of the NEPM and Covenant.

Jan 2022. The Review has identified that key elements of the UPM NEPM have not been implemented or have not been operationalised effectively. This has created a lack of clarity for brand owners, enabled free-riders, reduced confidence in the scheme and meant that there is limited data available about the success of the co-regulatory arrangement.