Nearly a billion tons of waste are disposed of improperly every year, and by 2050 without intervention the world is expected to generate 3.40 billion tons of waste annually, increasing drastically from today’s 2.01 billion tons. In Australia in particular, the latest National Waste Report shows that Australians are recycling 58% of waste generated, sending 37% of it to landfill and recovering only 2.8% though energy-from-waste technologies such as turning biogas from landfill and food waste into electricity. We are facing a reckoning with the way we manage our waste as we realize the way we have dealt with it in the past will be unsustainable in the future, and in order to combat this problem government, industry and citizens must all work together to change the way we view waste, comprehensively overhauling what is no longer working.
In 2019, the Australian government released a National Waste Policy Action Plan in which they set goals for the next decade. Seeking to strengthen their resource recovery industry which had been weakened by a reliance on exporting, they set a goal to ban the export of waste, plastic, paper, glass and tyres, in addition to other ambitious items on the agenda such as reducing total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person, increasing the use of recycled content by governments and industry, phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics, halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfills and reaching a national resource recovery target of 80%. In order to meet these goals Australia needed their waste management industry to fall in line fully with the plan, but Vik Bansal, chief executive officer of Australia’s largest waste management company, was already one step ahead of them.
Vik Bansal’s Work at Cleanaway
In 2015 when Bansal became CEO of Cleanaway (then going by the name Transpacific), the company was fractured in its strategy, struggling under a heavy debt burden, and had gone through four CEOs in three years. Although the high management turnover and unhappy investors would have been a red flag for many, Bansal believed that the core of the business and the people who worked there meant it had unlimited potential. He came into the company with the intention of giving it a comprehensive overhaul, starting with the development of an operating model that would serve as a solid foundation on which growth could thrive. He corrected courses on the company’s overall strategy, technical challenges, and the behaviour and engagement of the leadership teams, allowing him to identify what fat could be trimmed and what remained essential to the core of the business.
One of the key discoveries Bansal made while working out the company’s operating model was that the multi-brand strategy was fracturing its message. Cleanaway was an acquisition made in 2007, but of the names under the Transpacific umbrella it had the longest history as well as one of the strongest brand messages. In re-branding the company to Cleanaway, Bansal was able to create a new mission statement for the company: making a sustainable future possible. This gave the business a call to action, transforming its image from that of kerbside collectors to a force working to prepare Australia for the imminent circular economy it would need to obtain in order to properly manage its waste.
Creating a roadmap to carrying out the company’s mission statement, in 2017 Bansal introduced Footprint 2025, a strategy for the company that would ensure the country had the proper infrastructure in place to sustainably deal with waste. Australians are among the world’s largest producers of waste, and population growth, increased consumption, diminishing landfill space and strict quality requirements in recycling markets will continue to put increasing pressure on waste management systems. Through Footprint 2025, Bansal sought to drive the company toward long-term solutions that would allow for the recovery of more waste as well as processing more recyclables to ensure that the least amount of residual waste is left to be disposed of. This meant diversification of the company’s waste management portfolio, investing in solutions across the waste value chain.
The Waste Hierarchy
We’ve all heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” and recognize it as the way in which we should operate on an individual level. However, at a larger scale the idea becomes more complex. From a broader point of view waste must be dealt with in some way, shape or form, ordering from most preferable to least preferable as “avoid, reuse, recycle, recover energy, treat, or dispose.” The most preferred method of managing waste is to avoid creating it in the first place, or reduce the amount of waste created. These two methods can only be accomplished by a coming together of governments who create policies, industries who implement changes to the way they utilize materials, and individuals who must be proactive in their efforts. After these two methods, the next steps are to reuse materials in their original or repurposed form, recycle the material into a new product, recover resources such as energy from waste that can’t be recycled, and then finally treating waste for proper final disposal, and Vik Bansal has worked to arrange strategic investments for Cleanaway that accomplish these goals. To better manage waste, the higher levels of the waste hierarchy must be given priority, but the value of the lower levels also should not be lost.
Waste Value Chain Infrastructure
To date, Bansal has directed Cleanaway to invest more than $500 million in growth projects across the waste hierarchy, including collection, sorting and processing infrastructure. This includes greenfield developments such as the original Perth Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), transfer stations and resource recovery facilities, and landfill biogas generators to recover energy from landfill gas. Additionally, the company acquired SKM Recycling Group’s resource recovery assets, including material recovery facilities, a plastic recovery facility and transfer stations, preventing the state of Victoria from losing half of its recycling capacity. With the successful integrations of waste management businesses Toxfree Solutions and Daniels Health, Cleanaway became the 17th largest waste management firm in the world with more capital investment planned in the coming years.
Reuse and Recycle
Through two joint ventures between Cleanway and the industrial packaging company Pact Group, Bansal pioneered an unprecedented collaboration that effectively tackles the ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ methods of the waste hierarchy with the development of two new plastic pelletizing facilities. One facility recently broke ground in Albury-Wodonga, and the second facility has been proposed to be built in Western Australia, providing a comprehensive solution that will see less virgin plastics found on the shelves for consumers. Utilizing clean plastic collected from the New South Wales and Western Australia container deposit schemes and supplemented by Cleanaway’s plastic recovery facilities, the ventures will utilize the plastic processing expertise of Pact, and the New South Wales facility will also partner with the beverages company Asahi to ensure that there is demand for bottle manufacturing. The Western Australia facility will see over 17,000 tonnes of kerbside plastic waste processed into nearly 14,000 tonnes of resin and polymer flake, and the New South Wales Facility will recycle the equivalent of around one billion 600ml PET plastic bottles each year. According to Pact Group this will result in the amount of locally-sourced and recycled PET plastic produced in Australia increasing by two thirds from around 30,000 tonnes a year to more than 50,000.
These solutions relieve pressure on landfill, provide a lower cost option for councils and businesses to dispose of their non-recyclable waste and contribute to lowering carbon emissions. One energy-from-waste facility has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent of taking roughly 100,000 cars off the roads.
Cleanaway has proposed to build an energy-from-waste centre in Western Sydney, which would boost the local economy while powering more than 79,000 homes and business and divert up to 500,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste from the landfill each year. According to Bansal, energy-from-waste technology delivers on the triple bottom line of sustainability, and by investing in energy-from-waste infrastructure Cleanaway shows its overarching commitment to sustainability across the waste value chain.
Vik Bansal’s time at Cleanaway saw it rise over 120 places on the ASX market in less than six years, increasing its market capitalization from less than $1 billion to over $5 billion. However, perhaps one of his bigger legacies will be the building of infrastructure across the waste value chain, which will see Australia better prepared for a more sustainable future.