Implementing a circular economy in the NSW built environment has targeted construction waste management and building energy use. With the construction sector as one of the larger contributors to our carbon footprint, it is now vital to embed circular economy principles in the planning system.
NSW Construction Waste
NSW is transitioning to a circular economy that ‘values resources by keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible’1. Current built environment policies and regulations focus on waste management, reducing direct emissions from buildings, or greater water and energy efficiency – with little recognition around the contribution of the whole construction sector and the life cycle of development.
The construction and demolition (C&D) sector alone generated 27 million tonnes (44%) of waste in Australia. Of the total 22 million tonnes of waste in NSW in 2019-20, more than 57% or 1.52 tonnes per capita, was C&D. Unprecedented levels of development in our major cities will only increase this waste stream further.
Figure 1 Graph of Waste generation, NSW
The NSW Waste and Resource Recovery (WARR) Strategy recognises that effective waste management is fundamental for protecting the long-term wellbeing of the environment and the community. The strategy has a goal for 80% of C&D waste to be recycled by 2021/2022, while recycling rates for the C&D waste stream is strong (currently about 77%); remaining unchanged for a four year period
The circular economy in construction must be ‘business as usual’ and the planning system needs to be part of the catalyst for change.
Ideally, a circular economy policy framework will have a top-down and bottom-up approach. Clear direction at a Commonwealth level will provide a consistent top-down direction across Australia to attract national investment; and levers at State and local levels will create a bottom-up holistic change in development outcomes delivered by the public and private sectors.
Recent findings indicate a circular built environment could save 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year across Australia and deliver $29 billion in direct economic benefits to NSW per year by 2040 2.
Figure 2 Circular economy in the development lifecycle
Circular economy infrastructure in NSW will be improved through a state-of-the-art recycling centre, soon to be operational in Eastern Creek in Western Sydney. The $70 million BINGO Materials Processing Centre 2, which will be the largest and most advanced C&D waste processing facility in Australia will service Greater Sydney, diverting waste from landfill and recovering up to 90% of the materials it processes, including concrete and metals.
Figure 3 Image of the BINGO Advanced recycling centre, Eastern Creek
Establishing a circular economy in Australia and NSW does not need to start at ground zero. The top-down approach has commenced and existing mechanisms such as ratings tools are familiar to the market and can attract positive reputation and drive innovation in organisations that are prioritising sustainability actions. But reliance on this organic approach will be slow and imbalanced without a stronger policy nudge.
The Green Building Council Australia (GBCA) recently identified a lack of supportive policies and regulations and infrastructure to support material recycling and remanufacture.
Australia needs to tighten objectives in planning legislation to drive sustainability and circular economy actions in development outcomes, regulating waste to landfill, and various economic levers to increase the attraction of using recycled materials. Financial incentives such as reduced development costs or taxation can also be explored as short-term triggers.
Government has a strong exemplary role as a key developer through the delivery of critical infrastructure. Driving capacity for change requires critical infrastructure projects to achieve a target of 90% of recycling of C&D waste streams within the next two years would create the environment for the private sector to invest in the infrastructure and supply chains for recycling of C&D waste.
Likewise, early changes to planning policy in NSW may make inroads to securing a circular economy. These could include mandating the consideration of building and material re-use before a rezoning and as part of major development, new design excellence provisions to include the circular economy, and standard development approval conditions for a percentage of waste to be directed to recycling.