The role of the private sector in environmental stewardship
Ms Deni Greene, Deni Greene Consulting Services
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
The private sector has a critical role to play, along with academic institutions and publicly funded research organisations, in conducting research and contributing to sustainability through innovation. New approaches are needed to help solve existing environmental problems and to prevent the emergence of new ones in the future. Curtin University of Technology, which has been an Australian leader in the area of cleaner production, says ‘The challenge ahead is to turn sustainability imperatives into a launchpad for innovation to deliver the sustainable technologies and products of the future, which reflect tomorrow’s—rather than yesterday’s—balance between economic, environmental and social imperatives’ (Curtin University of Technology 2005). One of the key issues in translating innovative ideas into commercial realities is the availability of capital investment funds. In many cases, Australian ideas are commercialised in other countries because of the limited Australian market and a shortage of local funding.
Painting a detailed picture of private sector research and innovation in Australia, and clearly distinguishing it from public sector or collaborative work, is difficult for a number of reasons. The Business Council of Australia found when it surveyed its members that a great deal of private sector research occurs in collaboration with universities and publicly funded research organisations. Much of the research and innovation that occurs in companies involves improvements to processes or products within the core business of the organisation, in some cases using cleaner production techniques, and may not be readily apparent to external casual observers (BCA 2004). It is also worth noting that innovations developed within the publicly funded research organisations or universities may become commercialised and may end up as the basis for new enterprises either in Australia or overseas.
The work of the winner of the 2005 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, Professor David Boger, demonstrates the collaborative nature of innovative research in Australia, as well as the application of process improvements. Professor Boger, working at Monash University and the University of Melbourne, collaborated with the mining industry to find a way to work with concentrated mineral slurries, thereby reducing the required size of processing vessels, substantially decreasing the amount of liquid waste produced and saving the industry millions of dollars. He worked with Alcoa at their Kwinana alumina plant to remove the water from bauxite residue (a caustic red mud) while still allowing the waste to flow. The technology has now been taken up by many alumina plants around the world and has dramatically improved the environmental performance of alumina production (DEST 2005).
Now Alcoa has taken the further step of pumping waste carbon dioxide through the caustic mud, sequestering the carbon (creating a greenhouse sink) and producing a less caustic waste, which could potentially be re-used.
The emerging field of environmental biotechnology is expected to identify new ways to address critical environmental issues in the fields of biodiversity, pollution control, bioremediation (restoration of degraded areas) and reduction of toxic chemical use. At present most of the Australian research in this area is being conducted by publicly funded research organisations and universities working in cooperation with private sector companies. It seems likely that a number of new private sector enterprises will result from such research (EBCRC 2005).
Water management products and services provided by Micromet Pty Ltd demonstrate how private sector initiative and expertise can combine with financial assistance from government to yield innovative solutions that contribute to sustainability. Micromet developed technology that turns existing irrigation controllers, which usually operate on pre-set schedules, into ‘smart’ irrigation controllers that remotely control the watering of public spaces such as parks, so water is only applied when needed. Data from a network of weather stations and rain radar feeds into a central communications hub, which then relays information to the irrigation controllers at the site to be watered on whether to water and, if so, how much water to apply (Micromet 2005).
Micromet developed the technology and then received federal government financial assistance to fund the ability to incorporate rain radar data and to develop Internet capability (AusIndustry 2003). The company now operates from offices in South Australia and California, USA , and serves about fifty municipalities, helping them to maintain their irrigated areas in top quality while conserving water.
Wattyl’s acrylic paint with very low volatile organic compounds (VOCs ) is an example of an innovative product developed by a private sector company based on its own research and internal funding. As VOCs contribute to indoor air pollution and allergic reactions, there has been considerable interest in developing low VOC paints for interior use. Wattyl’s new paint contains no ammonia, no formaldehyde and minimal VOCs. It has also been formulated without the use of APE (alkyl phenol ethoxolate) surfactants, which may be a risk to marine life. It is not being sold as a niche green product but as a mass-market, mainstream, premium interior paint. It is being sold for the same price as conventional premium quality paints. The new paint combines environmental and safety benefits with superior performance characteristics without increasing the selling price (Jackson 2004).