No time to waste - a circular model for our waste sector

The challenge

The opportunity to create real change in New South Wales' waste system has never been greater. We worked with the NSW Environmental Protection Authority to ask the questions - what waste future do we want?

In this article

  • Why waste is growing at a faster rate than population growth
  • Horizon scanning to identify the major trends and shocks facing the NSW waste industry, from convenience lifestyles to planetary health
  • Plausible scenarios for the future of the industry, from a full circular economy shift to the worst case possibility - down in the dumps

Like many places in Australia, NSW has volumes of waste that now outpace population growth. Whilst this situation may seem intimidating, the necessity for change offers a huge opportunity that should not go to waste. To inform a 20-year Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy, we’ve collaborated with the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Infrastructure New South Wales (NSW) to explore the potential of the waste industry and guide policy toward action for preferred futures.

'The UN Sustainable Development Goals give us a clear blueprint on how to better treat our planet, its resources, and the people living on it. Goal 12, for instance, focuses on enabling more responsible means of consumption and production - where our current habits are often unsustainable and unequitable. Goal 17 emphasises that cooperation is key to success - as nobody can single-handedly enable the change we need to reduce our ecological footprint. Arup wants to embrace this culture by working with stakeholders across the built environment and equipping our clients with the research, understanding, and knowledge, to make the changes needed to shape a better world.' - Joyanne Manning, Resource and Waste leader.

Using a structured, ‘morphological box’ approach to create a series of scenarios, the team started with a horizon scanning exercise to identify megatrends. Megatrends are long-term evolutionary developments or patterns of change that are far-reaching, sustained and relatively certain.

Technology enables recycling and repurposing waste products, yet we struggle to make the switch. Paper pulp can serve as a beautiful, structural, and superior insulating material. Photo © Morgan Doty
'When we look at trends or megatrends, we explore what is already happening and then use these to ideate about what we would expect to happen. This is an important part of foresight as long-term thinking helps us prepare for and drive a preferred future.' Anne Kovachevich, Foresight leader.


For the Waste and Recovery Strategy, 20 megatrends were distilled to 5, identified as having the greatest impact on our waste future:

Convenience Lifestyles: Demographic changes are shifting customer expectations towards more convenient and digital solutions. Affluence is increasing waste streams.

Technological Evolutions: Digital adoption and renewable energy are reshaping consumption and production. This is generating new and emerging waste streams.

Consumption and Growth: Adopting circular economy principles could lead to new jobs and markets; however legacy costs from existing landfill pose a big risk to the waste industry.

Planetary Health: Resource use and ecosystem pollution have major effects on planetary health. In particular, climate change will present huge risks for the waste industry.

Policy and Regulation: Intelligent land use planning and clear policies and strategies can fundamentally shape a better waste management system.


The team also looked at megashocks. Megashocks are events considered to be highly unlikely (until they happen) and have a very high impact – usually on more than one area, geography or industry. Compared to megatrends, shocks or disruptions are much harder to foresee and can have a much greater impact on change. Considering the less likely is important for stress-testing the resilience of future scenarios.

Interestingly, some things that would traditionally have been classified as shocks, like the hypothetical extreme weather event in the Sydney harbour, have become more frequent, and are now considered to be a high likelihood, and therefore classed as trends. An extreme weather event could have an unpredictable knock-on effect, and that event might result in a shock.

Critical infrastructure breakdown: A magnitude seven earthquake hits south of Sydney, causing significant infrastructure damage.

Pandemic – mad cow disease: NSW is brought to a standstill when eight cases of mad-cow disease are identified across several locations.

Hazardous waste: A discovery is made - the combination of a metal and chemical that is intermittently found in electronic products is highly toxic and potentially combustible. We have a new (and very common) source of hazardous waste.

Energy grid crisis:  It’s the hottest month ever recorded in Sydney. Damage to distribution infrastructure caused by extreme weather initiates cascading failures within the grid, leaving millions of people without power, sometimes for days at a time.

Large-scale data breach: A cyber hacker breaks into the waste system and customer data is compromised. A separate attack targets automated sensing and tracking functions through a vulnerability in internet-connected sensors, causing widespread disruption of waste collection and processing.

China Sword lifted: Following the China Sword policy restricting China importing foreign waste, the regional recycling industry adapts and works well for a number of years until China revokes its restrictions. China offers a good price for recycling. Export of curbside collected recycling devastates local industries.


With trends and shocks identified, the team began scenario development. This started with an analysis of key-factors that will shape the future and drive change within the defined context:

Key-factors are considered to be those the driving forces and critical uncertainties shaping the future.
'To develop the scenarios, we brought together a wide range of stakeholders and key-actors in the waste and resource recovery lifecycle. This included major retailers, financiers, manufacturers, consumers, government agencies and peak bodies. Their knowledge and insight informed and shaped the scenarios and contextualised them to NSW.' - Joyanne

Based on these five key factors, the scenarios provide a range of plausible alternatives on what our world might look like in the decades to come. These range from a best case scenario - circular success – to down in the dumps, representing a total system failure with catastrophic consequences.

EPA NSW 'Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014-2021' sorts waste management options in ascending order of preference.

Circular success: Some countries already have robust waste systems in place and are moving in this direction. For example, Zero Waste Scotland has achieved a drastic transition to its waste sector with programs including food waste reduction methods saving £92 million, a drinks packaging return scheme, and Black Soldier Fly farming to turn organics into feed stock for food systems like salmon. In The Netherlands a government-wide program for a circular economy by 2050 is in full swing, with an interim target of halving the use of raw primary materials by 2030.

Down in the dumps: On the opposite side of the ledge is the worst case scenario - down in the dumps. Battered by economic shocks and policy indecision, NSW’s confidence in recycling fails. Some councils still collect recycling bins but increasing costs and decreasing recycling habits make this harder to sustain.  Only high value materials are extracted for recycling because there is minimal economic viability in this pursuit. Residual waste is increasingly sent to landfill, increasing the risk of biosecurity breaches, or exported at great cost. Major health risks emerge. Waste management costs increase, and are passed on to the public. Aspects of the worst case can be seen currently in New York City. In 2014, over US$330 million was spent exporting NYC waste to other states’ landfills or waste to energy facilities. It is estimated that the NYC waste system generates 1.66 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year or the equivalent of almost 200 million gallons of gasoline consumed.

Between these extremes are more moderate scenarios:

Road to recovery: Strong markets and consistent policy creates confidence within industry to invest in waste management solutions. High technology waste sorting extracts most types of recyclable material and energy from waste facilities are used to reduce demand on landfill void space.

Wasted opportunity: The opportunity to embrace the circular economy has been met with caution. Although the benefits have been demonstrated in other jurisdictions, the pace of change is slow and governments are reluctant to push for major changes in waste management practices.

Good intentions: High engagement sparks community concern which drives widespread behaviour change. Single use plastic has been banned, and communities sort and recycle their waste including organics. Unfortunately, without the support of coordinated infrastructure, the impact is limited.

Service monopoly: A service monopoly reigns providing a data driven offering of all services to customers: energy, water, transport, waste management, food supply and other items. Efficiency and convenience are high; however, risks of uncompetitive behaviour or cyber security need to be managed.

With governments embracing horizon scanning and scenario planning (see our Auckland 2050 report for a wellbeing approach to planning), stakeholders are better able to ‘see’ the potential impact of paths taken. These exercises also work to galvanise conversation around a shared agenda, helping to create a tangible action plan for change.

A paradigm shift in waste management could enable sustainable and beneficial outcomes for NSW and, as Australia’s most populated state, this could set an example for the rest of the country. In this regard, research and analysis are crucial enablers towards structuring a more resilient approach and informing the strategy and policy needed to drive this change.


  • The NSW waste industry has significant potential to lead Australia in resilient waste management
  • A morphological box approach to planning can be a valuable tool in building scenarios and identifying of a range of potential futures
  • Knowing the likelihood and impact of megatrends and megashocks helps us prepare for and drive a preferred future

Lead Arup Researcher

Anne Kovachevich
Anne leads our Australasian Foresight + Innovation team in Australasia.

Ask Anne about:

  • Foresight Advisory services
  • Circular economy
  • Planetary boundary health


NSW Environment Protection Authority
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales. In partnership with business, government and the community, EPA aims to reduce pollution and waste, protect human health, and prevent degradation of the environment.

Research TEAM

Graduate Consultant, Foresight + Innovation, Brisbane Office
Principal, Resource and Waste leader, Brisbane office

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