Environmental groups are calling for election commitments that prioritise plastic bans, alongside mandated targets on reduction, recovery, and recycling. The groups say that the 2025 targets on national plastic reduction, recycling, and reuse will not be met unless the next Commonwealth government cracks down and takes action.
The group has also called for the government to withdraw support for waste to energy plants, amid signs that globally that the market is hungry for recycled plastics and Fairfield Market Research tipping market value in the sector will reach U$S30.2 billion in the next three years.
The “war” on plastic comes from the Boomerang Alliance, with groups including Conservation Council ACT Region and North Queensland Conservation Council. More organisations are expected to release their demands in the lead-up to the election.
The Alliance is calling for election commitments that prioritise five key measures:
- Introduce a Product Stewardship Scheme for Packaging with mandated targets on reduction, recovery, and recycled content (based on agreed targets)
- Establish national standards for reusable, compostable and recyclable packaging that result in these being recovered in practice, with responsibility on manufacturers
- Deliver on the Commonwealth Plastics Plan ban promises for 2022 and expand to other problem areas such as soft plastics
- Continue funding for community cleans ups to reduce litter, and invest in more research into the impacts of plastics on the environment, wildlife, and the human food chain
- Promote and sign-on to an enforceable international treaty to reduce global marine plastics by 2024, giving assistance to regional neighbours in the Pacific
The groups say the Australian government set out goals for banning plastic by 2022 which are yet to be delivered. These include voluntary strategies for phasing-out expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging and enforcing certification for compostable packaging by June, and phasing-out EPS containers, moulded packaging and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) labels by December.
By early 2023, most single-use plastics will be banned across the nation – but the deadline has been pushed to 2025 for a complete ban.
“The packaging industry has had over 20 years to fix the problem; and has repeatedly failed. It is on the same path with the 2025 targets,” according to Jeff Angel, director of the alliance.
“Extension of the 2025 deadline which business is no doubt contemplating is unacceptable. It’s time for the Commonwealth to step in to protect the environment from hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ongoing plastic pollution and packaging waste.”
The 2025 National Packaging Targets, facilitated by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, sets deadlines for delivery of a more sustainable approach to packaging, including:
- 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging
- 70 per cent of plastic packaging recycled or composted
- 50 per cent of average recycled content included in packaging (revised from 30 per cent in 2020).
- Phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics packaging
“The targets are only good enough if they’re achieved by 2025,” Mr Angel said. “But that is looking very unlikely. So the next government needs to put some enforceability behind those targets, otherwise the sheer amount of waste and damage to the environment will continue.
“Inevitably, industry will ask for an extension. They’ve never met their previous targets… They’re going to fail – all the evidence points to that. We’re very convinced the prospect of pushing it back again must not happen.
“Some governments appear to only want to review those targets in 2024, which doesn’t give enough time to put all the regulatory tools in place to meet the 2025 target.
“It’s a recipe for failure.”
Calls for plastic bans to be enforced nation-wide
The current packaging phase-out plan relies on voluntary strategies that are inconsistent state-to-state and city-to-city, which environmental groups say should be mandated and enforced.
As each state and territory is taking a different approach to the phasing out of single-use plastics, strategies should be implemented in a nation-wide ban, the group said. For example, Tasmania and Northern Territory’s single-use plastics bans are limited only to lightweight plastic bags and food packaging in some cities.
Election policies yet to be released
Among current election commitments a clear direction on plastic from the major parties is not obvious.
The Morrison government has a $A250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund that is being invested in recycling facilities, but has not yet announced any new policies in the lead up to the election.
The Opposition briefly mentions “innovative packaging solutions for waste reduction” but has not released any more information.
“We haven’t seen anything yet, but I expect there will be something from both parties soon,” Mr Angel said.
At present it appears that the candidates with strong plastic policies are The Greens, with a plan to tackle plastic including:
- Provide $1 billion for a nationwide compostable processing scheme, supporting local councils to build industrial compostable facilities
- Legislate a national approach to phasing out key single-use plastics by 2025
- Legislate a national approach to container deposit schemes
- Support a Global Plastic Treaty
- Mandate national packaging targets in law
- Invest $500 million over five years into infrastructure and programs to reboot recycling
- Invest $50 million in waste avoidance and reduction research
- Support the Right to Repair to minimise e-waste
The group also said that the laws should be expanded to include other forms of problematic waste, including cigarette components, plastic bags, balloons, and e-waste (electronic waste) – and that strategies to prevent ocean pollution should also be enforced.
International treaties prohibit the dumping of waste matter into the ocean under international law, to protect the marine environment from pollution. Australia has laws including the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act of 1981 – that protects the marine environment from human activities. However, there are no compliance mechanisms and it is very difficult to enforce in practice.
The alliance has called for the next Australian government to promote and sign-on to an enforceable international treaty to reduce global marine plastics by 2024, with specific assistance for regional neighbours in the Pacific.
“The Global Plastic Treaty looks at the whole life cycle of plastic products – from design, avoidance, and recycling – so it doesn’t get into the ocean,” Mr Angel said. “It’s a much bigger effort than just ocean dumping… This is terrestrial pollution that’s leaking into the ocean – it’s a big challenge.”
According to WWF, 88 per cent of marine species are affected by severe contamination of plastic in the ocean, and plastic pollution in bodies of water is set to triple by 2040. This translates to around 50 kilograms of plastic per metre of coastline, according to the UN.
Campaigns to change consumer behaviour
To change consumer and business behaviour around plastic, the Boomerang Alliance is proposing a fully government funded $A50 million “War on Waste”-style multimedia campaign.
We could draw parallels with the government expenditure on anti-smoking campaigns beginning in the 1970s, which amounted to around $A36 million in 2010-11 and $A31 million in 2012-13 (adjusted for inflation). Within five years of launching the National Tobacco Campaign for example, adult smoking had reduced by 3.7 per cent.
“We need the most innovative methods possible. We understand it’s just one piece of the effort, but one of the critical targets in the national waste policy is the issue of avoidance of waste so we don’t produce it in the first place. That will require sophisticated communication tools to change people’s behaviours.”
Waste to energy
The group is also calling on the government to withdraw support for waste to energy plants.
Waste to energy has been a controversial alternative energy proposition with some touting the tech as clean and others fiercely opposing it. The group argues that waste to energy is counterproductive to the circular economy principles and that the waste would have a greater resource value if it was recovered.
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“The federal government is handing out money to waste to energy plants, which use mixed waste from council collections. This means that recyclable materials are going into the incinerator, as we know a lot of recyclable material ends up in the red bin.
“State governments are developing policies which allow the entry of incineration into waste management. The very real threat is that given the large amount of waste the incinerators are seeking, they are seeking 25 year contracts. One can expect that a good portion of the capacity to recycle will become available later on, and it will be locked up in that contract.”
Until the recycling infrastructure and technology can be improved, Mr Angel said this “locks up wasteful resources into a one way direction of energy – and consequently it’s not part of the circular economy”.
The major parties have not yet, as part of the election campaign, released any specific policies on waste to energy yet.
Labor’s “Powering Australia” renewable energy plan includes up to $A3 billion investment from its National Reconstruction Fund into “waste reduction”, including: “innovative packaging solutions for waste reduction”. But despite being included under their renewable energy plan, it doesn’t mention energy to waste.
APAC market hungry for recycled plastics
Worldwide, the circular economy is making headway with the market hungry for recycled plastics. New research from Fairfield Market Research anticipates that the market will reach U$S30.2 billion by 2026 – an increase from $US19.5 billion in 2019.
The Asia Pacific region now accounts for more than half of demand for recycled plastics across the globe, according to the report. APAC’s waste problem was exacerbated along economic lines, with wealthier nations such as Australia exporting the majority of our waste to our developing neighbours in a strategy that has been condemned as “waste colonialism”.
India’s waste problem made international headlines last week as a 17-story-tall “mountain” of garbage spontaneously combusted during a heatwave in New Delhi, pouring toxic smoke into the city for five straight days. The waste “mountain” is more than 73 metres high and wider than 50 football fields.
Australia’s landmark ban on mixed waste exports was enforced in July 2022, mandating that waste exports must be sorted according to type (to make it easier to recycle), processed into fuel, declared and approved with a special licence. The government’s $A250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund was introduced to tackle plastic litter onshore as well.
“It’s very hard to get a picture of the inroads these new [recycling] facilities will make into the disposal situation. We don’t know how much recycling is going to be achieved and how that matches against the target. What we do know is that there needs to be more,” says Angel.
“The only option is to massively increase our recycling capacity. One of the benefits is that we have a higher degree of resource security, as we don’t have to import our resources.”
APAC demand for recycled plastics has been spurred on by concurring government policies in countries such as India, Southeast Asia, and China.
Government policies such as bans and mandates are an effective strategy for countries looking to reduce plastic waste, and the Boomerang Alliance says that similar steps need to be taken in Australia.
“In recent times, most of the states and territories have been doing the heavy lifting on problem plastics. It’s time for the Commonwealth government to intervene where it has a primary role and responsibility. These five measures spell out the key agenda items that need to be taken.”
“The problem is so large we need the next term of government to make really substantial changes to how we treat plastic production and waste. We’re on the path but the job is not done yet.”