Does Australia have what it takes to tackle plastic pollution?

As we head into halfway through 2022, it begs the question, with two and a half years to go, is it doing enough to meet the 2025 packaging targets? Based on current progress, the answer is no. So, will Australia make a concerted push towards the finish line?

In 2018 the The Australian government has set the four national packaging targets for 2025 to be achieved by 2025:

  • 100% of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted
  • 50% of average recycled content included in packaging
  • The elimination of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organization (APCO) is tasked with meeting industry targets, plus an additional target, to achieve 20% recycled content in plastic packaging, with specific targets for polyethylene (30 %), high density polyethylene (20%) and polypropylene (20%). Based on current results, Australia’s progress towards the first goal has declined by 2%, progress towards the second has plateaued, progress towards the third has increased by only 4% and while progress compared to the fourth improve with the eight states and territories. having now banned lightweight plastic bags from 1 June 2022, only four (ACT, QLD, SA and WA) currently have some form of single-use ban in place, with NSW due to join them later this year, and VIC at the beginning of 2023 (see table below on State and Territory commitments).

Source: APCO Collective Impact Report 2021

In addition to the 2025 targets, the ANZPAC Plastics Pact has brought together 100 leading businesses, governments and supply chain players to work collaboratively across the Oceania region. ANZPAC is part of the Ellen McArthur Foundation (EMF) Global Plastic Pact Network, which seeks to align global efforts on plastic pollution

On March 2, 2022, we saw a renewed global focus on tackling plastic pollution, with 175 countries voting in favor of the United Nations resolution for a legally binding agreement covering the entire lifecycle of plastic from here 2024.

So we have a pact, objectives and a future binding global agreement, but what are we doing in practice? We are quickly running out of time and getting closer to a world where plastic could outweigh fish in our oceans.

It is important to note that plastics are an integral part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Plastics have incredible properties making them much better in many applications than alternative products and without them we would struggle to mass produce cars, phones and electronics on today’s global scale.

Synthetic plastics or polymers do not occur naturally and are produced by chemical processes and are incredibly durable. For example, telephones from the 1930s made from the first synthetic polymer, Leo Baekeland’s “bakelite”, are still in working order. Living without plastic is almost impossible in our current society; but living without single-use plastic is well within our means.

Single-use plastics are the type of plastic of greatest concern, with most plastic packaging being used only once, resulting in about. $80-120 billion in economic value lost each year.

So where does Australia stand on the single-use plastics front? Much progress has been made over the past few years and by 2023 every Australian state will have some form of single-use item ban and container deposit system.

Source: Adapted from AMCS Australia State/Territory Commitments and Lexology Overview of Single-Use Plastic Bans.

What else needs to be done to achieve the goals? What are the obstacles to solving Australia’s remaining problems 800,000 tonnes of non-recyclable packaging by design? The main stakeholders in the packaging ecosystem must all play their part. Potential options include:

  • Government: research regulatory instruments and consider making certain requirements mandatory (e.g. single-use plastic ban, making APCO targets mandatory) and consider sourcing targets to expand markets for recycled products
  • Packaging producers and manufacturers: design with end-of-life (reuse/recycling) in mind (e.g. look for single monomer packaging, like the first curbside recyclable standing bag]) and show their commitment to the National Environmental Protection Measure (NEPM) 2011 by becoming a member of APCO
  • Retailers: use their buying power to scale the brands they stock to encourage packaging avoidance or the use of smarter packaging and recycled materials
  • Industry Associations: support producers and brands in the transition to different packaging options and promote government targets and objectives
  • Material sorters and processors: continue to explore technological advances to tackle existing plastic waste and improve recovery options (e.g. advanced infrared spectroscopy sorting to separate materials and achieve cleaner material streams with higher value applications)
  • Consumers: use their portfolio to increase demand for products with better packaging (e.g. choosing products with the Australasian recycling label) as well as properly sorting recyclables to reduce contamination when recycling curbside

The only way to achieve the 2025 packaging goals is for all players to work together and embrace circularity throughout the packaging lifecycle.

Bryce K. Locke