Heavy Vibration roller compactor at asphalt pavement works for road repairing

By Adam Copp, Acting CEO Infrastructure Australia

Milk bottles, bread bags, food wrappers and bubble wrap may seem like unlikely source materials for a road project. But 570t of these hard-to recycle materials – equivalent to the plastic waste collected from 25,000 Victorian households in just one year – was transformed into the noise walls that line Mordialloc Freeway in Victoria. This one story illustrates the possibilities when we stop seeing waste and start seeing wasted potential.

Adam Copp, Acting CEO Infrastructure Australia

Australia has a ballooning waste problem. The most recent National Waste Report lays it out in black and white: 76 million tonnes of waste generated in just one year equates to 2.95 tonnes per person.

We are also making record investments in road infrastructure, with the 998 road projects to be delivered between 2015 to 2031 demanding around 200 million tonnes of conventional materials.

To address these challenges in tandem, we must start paving the way to a circular economy.

Closing the loop

Australia has an extensive road network covering more than 877,000km – and that network is growing – with around $149 billion being spent on major transport projects over the next five years.

For decades, road agencies have used recycled materials to reduce waste and emissions. But unprecedented public infrastructure investment, which places extra pressure on already stretched material supply chains, is driving us towards the circular economy at speed.

Late last year, Infrastructure Australia launched the Replacement Materials report to spark new conversations about how road projects can make better use of recycled materials.

To understand the size of the opportunity, Infrastructure Australia worked collaboratively with the Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water as project sponsor, the National Transport Research Organisation (formerly Australian Road Research Board), EY as project contractors and ecologiQ in Victoria as project advisor.

We estimate, based on current technology and standards, that around 27 per cent of conventional materials – roughly 54 million tonnes – could be replaced with a range of recycled materials.

But if we work together to address the obstacles preventing large-scale adoption of recycled materials, the outlook is even more optimistic – with the replacement rate rising to as high as 59 per cent, eliminating the need for nearly 119 million tonnes of conventional materials.

Roadblocks to recycling

Infrastructure Australia’s report found several significant roadblocks must be addressed. The first is the industry’s low level of familiarity with available recycled material products, their performance, environmental benefits or the market opportunities.

For example, around 38 per cent of recycling and waste processing businesses reported that they have customers who perceive recycled materials to be of lower quality. The solution is to develop performance-based standards and consistent specifications that foster trust and transparency, and that build awareness of the opportunities.

Unfavourable regulatory conditions, which contribute to market uncertainty, negative perceptions and a risk averse culture, also hold us back. Almost one in five (18 per cent) recycling industry businesses we surveyed noted that this impacted industry confidence, by creating doubts in the minds of businesses and users on the quality and durability of such materials.

To advance market innovation and grow the circular economy, greater engagement is needed between regulators and recycling industry representatives. Governments can also revisit regulations that treat recovered materials as waste, rather than as potential resources.

Low demand leads to low supply. To create certainty and provide a strong boost to the market, governments can focus on facilitating procurement-driven demand, providing easy-to-access market and cost information, and sending clear demand signals to support market growth.

Capacity building is also key to ensuring the recycling industry can deliver high-quality products. Governments can provide incentives and financial support to modernise and extend the reach of recycling infrastructure, and to boost workforce capacity.

There are also a mix of common and specific issues causing supply capacity constraints. Fly ash, a by-product of coal that is commonly used in recycled concrete products, is becoming harder to source as coal-fired power generation is phased out, for instance.

Geographic barriers also exist, with recycled material supplies often concentrated in metropolitan areas, making access limited in more remote areas. These examples illustrate the complexity of the challenge ahead.

Solutions on the road ahead

Nothing short of market transformation is required. But the Mordialloc Freeway project is a stand-out success story of how circular economy thinking can create new shared value. The 32,000m2 of recycled noise walls – which used the equivalent of 30 million water bottles – were made by 70 local workers at PACT Group’s manufacturing facility.

At less than half the weight of steel or concrete panels, the wall panels are quicker and safer to install than their traditional counterparts. They are non-porous, which makes them graffiti proof. The panels, which should be in place for at least four decades, can also be recycled again at the end of their life on the road.

Australia’s recent stockpile of soft plastics is a very visible manifestation of a massive problem for our nation. But this stockpile also shows that millions of Australians want to be part of the solution to our waste problem. One of those solutions is right before us. As Infrastructure Australia’s latest report shows, recycled materials can literally pave the way to a circular economy.

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