Collaboration may be the key to solving Australia’s plastic waste problem

Australia faces a pressing environmental challenge: plastic waste. The Solving Plastic Waste CRC is one of two successful bids in Round 24 of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program. Cooperative Research Australia spoke to Dr Leonie Walsh, the interim chair and Dr Ian Dagley, the bid leader and CEO, who shared their insights into their funding endeavours and their ambitious goals for the Cooperative Research Centre.

Both Leonie and Ian identify a central challenge in existing efforts to reduce plastic waste in Australia: a lack of coordination and organisation. ‘The voice we hear from the sector is that there is a lot happening, but it’s not happening fast enough or in a systems-based approach,’ said Leonie. 

The dynamic duo envisions a cooperative research centre as the linchpin, offering the expertise and organisation essential to combat plastic waste. Ian emphasises that ‘You need a holistic approach to solve a problem like plastic waste.’ ‘Before all this works, you need companies that make polymers, companies that turn them into products, companies that collect the plastic waste, companies that produce products from the plastic waste, and government to make the rules. This is an opportunity to bring together stakeholders from across the entire plastics value chain.’ 

Leonie highlights another challenge in the current plastics sector – that companies already trying to reduce their environmental impact may be disadvantaged compared to their competitors. The CRC aims to rectify this. ‘I think we will be able to help create that level playing field so participants that are doing the right things in the sector feel like it’s more competitive for them. This will also help grow some new advanced manufacturing capability – chemical, mechanical, recycling, and the development of new polymers.’

The CRC has adopted this holistic approach in seeking partners, as conveyed by Leonie, who notes, ‘We have taken a value chain approach in our search for partners. We have been very strongly focused on quality along the value chain rather than quantity.’ Ian reiterates this, saying ‘We only brought in partners who we thought had a really critical role to play, had important technology that was going to have a big impact, and were committed to delivering outcomes.’ Ian also mentions the diversity of the partners, which include local and state governments, philanthropic organisations, industry, and the university sector. 

The Solving Plastic Waste CRC aims to use this approach to increase collaboration between previously unconnected areas in the value chain. ‘This is an opportunity for the university sector to engage, not just with one or two partners on a particular aspect of the problem, but to draw on the strength of the university sector across the range of problems.’ This increased collaboration has the potential to outlive the CRC. Leonie mentions that Saffron aid and the Minderoo foundation, two of their partners focused on delivering benefits to remote and Indigenous communities, were already seeing the benefits of increased collaboration. ‘[They] were starting to communicate amongst themselves, which they hadn’t done in the past, and worked out that there are opportunities for them to work together outside of and in addition to the projects that are running through the CRC.’

Leonie and Ian were asked to clear up any common misconceptions about plastics, and to explain the benefits of the CRC to an average Australian. ‘Our recycling rates are around 12%. 84% goes to landfill, so there’s a lot to be done,’ says Ian. ‘We’re trying to grow robust, scalable markets for the plastic that’s recovered and obviously trying to put plastics into the highest possible value reuse application.’ Leonie reiterates the need for a multidimensional approach: ‘just getting rid of plastic bags doesn’t necessarily solve all of the problems that we have.’ ‘This CRC is looking at new designs, designing for more recyclable products and materials, looking for alternative materials. It’s looking at how we improve collection, sorting and recycling in urban and remote areas. It’s also digging into some of the health effects that we’re facing as a result of these plastics. Overall, it’s trying to inform better decision making across the use of different types of plastics all the way from the design end to the consumer.’

Apart from reducing pollution and providing economic benefits, Ian emphasises that the alumni are often the most important legacy left behind by a CRC. ‘For many CRCs, the greatest legacy is the cohort of people who’ve been through the CRC: The students who become industry leaders, the postdocs who similarly move out into key positions. They might be in industry, they might be in universities, they might be in government, but they take forward what they’ve learned about the problem and how to solve it.’ Leonie also emphasises the opportunities for students in the CRC. ‘We have a multilayered educational approach. There’ll be projects for postdoctoral researchers that can work on specific industry-based research programs. There’ll be micro credential type projects for people working in the sector or within the university setting. We’re also focussing on developing entrepreneurial skills through different design type workshops at the CRC.’

Ian concludes with these remarks on the impact of the Solving Plastic Waste CRC: ‘There’s a distinct economic, social, and environmental advantage. The CRC stands as a bulwark against the massive waste of resources. With 3.8 million tons of plastic produced annually and only 12% recovered, it’s vital that this CRC finds a solution so we can avoid throwing so much valuable material away.’

The team at Cooperative Research Australia warmly congratulate Dr Leonie Walsh and Dr Ian Dagley along with the rest of the team at the Solving Plastic Waste CRC on their successful bid and wish them all the best in their endeavours during the life of the CRC.

For more information on the Solving Plastic Waste CRC, click here.