When Vik Bansal took on the role of CEO at Cleanaway, he did not do so because it was the best offer he received. On the contrary, in 2015 it was actually the worst-performing of the companies he was considering working for. In addition to holding a debt burden of over $2 billion, the company had gone through four CEOs in five years, and was generally struggling with a lack of strong leadership or a cohesive strategy. However, for Vik Bansal, while it would certainly present a challenge, he believed that he had found the company with the strongest core and had the biggest opportunity to transform into not only a successful business, but also make an impact on Australia as a whole.
Over the course of the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that the way in which the world deals with waste is not sustainable. On average Australians use 130kg of plastic per person each year, with only 9 per cent of that being recycled. Even worse, up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic will find its way into the ocean, and without intervention by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Besides wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, studies have also shown that it has begun to enter the food chain and end up on our plates.
A 2020 poll conducted by the Lowry Institute found that nine out of ten participants accepted the need to act on climate change, and three out of the top five critical threats to Australia’s vital interests were related to the environment, showing that public opinion is shifting to placing climate change and sustainability at the forefront, but in order for lasting change to occur, it must be a joint effort between government, industry, and individuals to create a circular economy.
The unsustainable way of dealing waste that most countries have operated with in the past involved raw materials being collected, transformed into products which are used briefly and then thrown away. This is known as a linear economy, where value is created by producing and selling as many products as possible. The linear economy ends with the creation of waste which must be dealt with, and our improper handling of such waste is now threatening our ecosystems. Additionally, before products even make it to the consumer the production of them produces large quantities of greenhouse gases such as carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide, with the extraction and processing of raw materials currently accounting for half of total greenhouse gas emissions. The solution to this? Transitioning our economies from linear to circular.
A circular economy is a system of closed loops in which raw materials, components and products lose as little of their value as possible. Rather than waste being the end of the product chain, a circular economy focuses on regenerating. With a focus on positive society-wide benefits, transitioning to a circular economy means going further than simply making adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of a linear economy. It is about making a systematic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and social benefits.
Back in 2015, Bansal knew that with Cleanaway being Australia’s largest waste company, it was destined to play a massive role in this systematic shift. Rather than try and fight the winds of change, he instead sought to transform Cleanway from a garbage disposal company to a waste management company that could aid Australia in its transition to a circular economy. Getting straight to work, he focused on fixing the company’s operating model through which the company’s technical challenges, overall strategy and the behaviour and engagement of the leadership teams could all interconnect. With a solid foundation in place through the operating model, Bansal was then able to strengthen the company by rebranding, giving it a fresh start in the eyes of the public along with a new mission statement and purpose: making a sustainable future possible.
For Bansal, making a sustainable future possible best encompassed his goals for the company, because it meant approaching sustainability from all angles of the business. He knew that as the largest waste management company in the country, it was their responsibility to help set the tone and create the narrative for how the country would move forward when it came to dealing with waste. His vision was to see every item thrown away not as trash to be discarded but a resource to be utilized, and has sought to ensure that government, industry, and individuals all view it the same way.
In 2019, the Australian government released a National Waste Policy Action Plan, their ambitious plan to kick-start a circular economy within the country. It set goals such as banning the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, reducing total waste generated in Australia by 10 per cent per person, increasing the use of recycled content by government 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 per cent. One essential aspect of these lofty goals is the swift creation of recycling infrastructure, and Cleanaway had been making strategic acquisitions and greenfield investments to ramp up its capabilities for over three years at that point. By integrating companies such as Toxfree, Daniels Health and SKM Recycling successfully into the Cleanaway brand, Bansal was able to quickly gain access to plastic pelletising and other such facilities that would have otherwise taken years to build, and his business savvy saw the companies quickly and successfully integrated. The company has also been active in collaborating with the federal and state governments, such as in container deposit schemes. Cleanway is the network operator for the New South Wales container deposit scheme and provides logistics services to both the Queensland and Western Australian schemes.
Bansal has also seen to it that Cleanaway is working with other industries to ensure that waste is seen as a resource. The company has organized joint ventures with the industrial packaging company Pact Group to build two new plastic pelletising facilities in New South Wales and Western Australia, through which clean plastic collected by Cleanaway through their own collections and the states’ container deposit schemes will be processed for re-use. In addition to leveraging the plastic processing expertise that Pact Group will bring, the New South Wales facility which recently broke ground will also partner with the beverages company Asahi, ensuring that the influx of pelletized plastic and bottle manufacturing will have the demand to meet it. Through the combination of such demand along with infrastructure and consumer participation, these new facilities create a truly circular system in which less virgin plastics are found on the shelves for consumers.
Finally, Bansal has recognized that one of the most important aspects of transitioning to a circular economy on an individual level is education, as any kind of behaviour change requires it in order to be sustained long-term. For that reason he has made sure Cleanaway plays a large part in teaching better recycling habits throughout Australia, working in partnership with business to develop and implement programs that help improve sustainable practices. They also utilize an in-house team of educators to develop award-winning, specialist programs for municipalities across the country. Grassroots activity is another way in which Cleanaway educates members of the community, and they are actively involved in supporting roughly 220 communities throughout Australia. This can mean anything from supporting local sports groups to donating resources to Clean Up Australia Day and other community events, as well as raising funds for local, regional, and national charities.
Today, thanks to Bansal’s comprehensive work ensuring Cleanaway was making an impact across the spectrum of governments, industries, and communities in Australia, it is no longer seen as simply the company that picks up your kerbside bins. Instead, it has become a fixture in every community as an advocate for a circular economy and a sustainable future.