Helen Millicer
Helen Millicer

SERIES: Truths about plastics – 1 July 2021 marks the first day of the federal government’s ban that will prevent the export of Australia’s mixed plastic waste to overseas countries.

This is significant. This is the first time any country is sealing their border and banning the export of recovered plastics to existing overseas markets. It will be closely watched by countries around the world.

It is not unusual for countries to restrict imports on grounds of safety, biosecurity, environmental hazard etc. China’s National Sword bans in 2018 on imports of unsorted plastics caused major ructions around the world including in Australia with stockpiles, fires and company bankruptcies.

Updates to the Basel Convention in January 2021 made it illegal for signatory countries such as Malaysia to receive contaminated plastic wastes from US and EU, however, there continues to be illegal trade.

Australia’s ban is a unique policy initiative and there is speculation how it will impact our plastic packaging, our recycling and landfills, our plastics manufacturers and reprocessors, and whether governments and companies are ready for 1 July.

There is no doubt it will have positive benefits with reduced litter and pollution in countries like Thailand and Vietnam that will no longer receive our highly mixed and contaminated bales to sort the good from the bad. So often these developing countries have been cited as major contributors to marine plastic pollution when these same countries are the destination for up to 50 per cent of Australia’s unprocessed plastics.

Will we go circular with ban number two?

Our transition in Australia will be accelerated by the government’s second ban. Due to come into effect on 1 July 2022, this requires even higher quality processing to 99 per cent clean flake or pellets ready for processing direct into finished packaging and products.

This is an even bigger processing step to be done in Australia before any material can be exported and is likely to result in a transformation of Australia’s design, use, sorting and reprocessing of plastics. It will also result in increased jobs, reprocessing infrastructure and plastics to landfills.

There will be upheavals, lobbying and cries as we get to crunch around D-Day, and ultimately it is hoped that we will become a truly more sustainable and circular plastics economy than we have been in decades.

Implications from the government’s ban

The Australian government recently passed the new Recycling and Waste Reduction Act which, among other things, requires all companies wanting to export recovered plastics from 1 July 2021 to first sort the material into specific polymer types for easier processing overseas.

This means in five weeks, baled material for export must be 100 per cent PET or 100 per cent HDPE or 100 per cent ABS plastics, and no longer the poor specification combinations we have exporting for the last 20 years like 40:40:20 with 20 per cent mixed “other”.

This also means from 1 July Australian plastic reprocessors and manufacturers will be on a more level playing field and should be better able to purchase higher quality, uncontaminated bales from local sorters.

This export ban is not a big deal for companies that have been dealing with clean streams for decades. There has always been a local and international market and demand for clean, well sorted (unmixed) plastics, whether it is off-spec milk bottles from packaging manufacturers or products like bundled coathangers from retailers, car bumper bars or stormwater pipe.

However, it is a significant challenge for our sorting facilities, run by companies like Veolia, Visy and Cleanaway who receive our commingled recycling. Commingled bins are a total jumbled mix of whatever we put in.

While they are only meant for packaging, amongst all the metal cans, glass bottles, paper/cardboard and plastic packaging, people also “wishcycle” and include totally inappropriate plastic bags, straws and garden hose.

Customarily sorters have been sorting plastics into three grades and only specifically sorting out clearly identifiable PET juice bottles and HDPE milk bottles, with the rest being ‘mixed plastics’ for export and some dross like multi-laminated packaging to landfill.

There have been few if any Australian secondary sorters willing to receive and sort awful bales of mixed plastics and compete with low-cost labour countries. And as the China National Sword of 2018 showed, neither China nor Australian plastics reprocessors were willing to handle such bales to try to convert into new quality reprocessed packaging or product.

Likely impacts from the ban

The choices our sorting companies will make will vary, largely depending upon the costs of sending material to landfill and access to reprocessors. Landfill prices vary across Australia, and until now there has been no need for sorters to connect with Australian plastics reprocessors.

Some companies are already improving their sorting to extract greater quantities of diverse valuable plastics from the material they receive, with staff retraining and tweaks to sorting systems. Positively these companies are finding new buyers in both Australia and overseas for their cleaner material.

Plastics reprocessors and manufacturers in Australia are rejoicing at the willingness of primary sorters to now sell recovered plastics to them, which means we are increasing the recycled content in some of our domestically produced plastics for the first time in decades.

Some companies will keep their existing practices and send greater amounts to landfill.

In fact, in both instances, given the immense diversity and poor recyclability of much of our plastic packaging and products, we will see significantly larger quantities going to landfill for some time. It also takes months and years for companies to install and commission new plant and equipment, and it is clear we have a shortfall in plastics reprocessing capacity to handle likely supply.

All these changes are likely to result in increases in our recycling and landfill fees, which are frankly due for an overhaul. It will also increase pressure upon brand owners, retailers and manufacturers to address the durability, reusability and recyclability of plastic products and packaging. While there are some good moves underway with packaging with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), there are almost no moves to address repair and recyclability of products.

And for us at home, in our workplaces and venues across Australia we too will have greater responsibility to improve our purchases and sorting of plastics for increased circularity.

In summary, the government’s bold ban will prompt a necessary structural change through our plastics supply chain. We will end the awful shameful practice of sending our ‘mixed plastics wastes’ offshore and face up to what we really produce, use and dispose, and have more serious discussions about a more circular plastics economy.

Helen Millicer, GAICD, Churchill Fellow, is director, One Planet Consulting, is the author of two forthcoming publications for APCO: Specifications for Sorting and Recycling Plastics, and Recycled Content Guide for Australian Packaging.