We buy it, use it briefly and throw plastic away into landfill or as litter. Only a small proportion, usually collected through kerbside collections, actually makes it to a recycler. Of the 907,000 tonnes of plastic packaging used in Australia (2017-18) only 14% was actually recycled in Australia. Plastic packaging is out of control.
Australia’s Product Stewardship Act (2011) can oblige companies to reduce waste and prevent harmful materials from ending up in the environment or landfill, by increasing recycling and recovery of valuable resources from products. While the legislation has good intentions, it clearly has not worked to reduce plastic waste and improve its recycling. Currently councils and households bear the cost but it is now time for manufacturers to play a big role.
With the expected increase in number of dwellings in Australia plastic consumption will only increase. Boomerang Alliance, Australian Council of Recyclers (with backing from Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association) are calling on the next Commonwealth Government to strengthen the PS Act to require suppliers of packaged products to design packaging to minimise resources and to ensure all packaging can be reused, composted or recycled easily and economically in Australia. And in order to meet the 2025 targets of 70% of plastic packaging, let’s take a look at the most influential element in changing those numbers: the Australian recycling law.
The National Waste Policy (2018) established by the Federal and State Governments is responsible for providing the national structure for waste management and resource recovery. But it needs specific legislation, funding and product plans to actually make a difference. In the past only one product stewardship program (e-waste) has been mandatory, with the rest being voluntary.
Plastic packaging requires strong action. First there should be a law requiring imported and domestic packaging to be composted or recycled. This will help overcome different types of plastics (polymers) being produced with disregard for the lack of existing infrastructure to recycle them. For example, multilayer plastics are being increasingly produced where flexible and rigid plastics with different chemical properties are assembled together to perform more complex functions to meet the demand for different types of food preservation and marketing of certain products. They are hard to recycle. Secondly, there must be penalties on companies that don’t comply.
Manufacturers and retailers are the ones that design and produce the packaging and they should acknowledge their responsibility and role. A change to the national recycling law will ensure that overseas and domestic manufacturers meet the requirements to reuse, compost or recycle plastic packaging to meet modern standards.
In 1994, the EU introduced a Packaging Directive that set recycling targets for all packaged materials. This led to a reduction in the use of packaging materials that were not economically beneficial or technically possible to recycle and an increase in acceptable alternatives. Today a product manufactured in or for the EU market uses compostable packaging, whilst a product manufactured for Australia often uses polystyrene packaging. Many countries in Europe have banned the disposal of recyclables into landfills.
Australia has to catch up. If Australia introduces a mandatory stewardship scheme for domestically-used packaging that meets the APCO target of having at least 70% of all packaging composted or recycled by 2025, then it will be the major first stage of implementing the circular economy, transferring more packaging to composting or recycling facilities than would otherwise end up in landfill.
Ultimately, the two key measures required to strengthen the Product Stewardship Act are (1) design requirements on all packaging used in the Australian market to ensure packaging can be easily and economically composted or recycled and (2) that mandatory targets are set to ensure that the 70% by 2025 APCO targets are achieved, and earlier where possible.
At the time of writing, The Greens have backed these measures, the Labor Party have supported a strengthening of the PS Act to meet the APCO targets, but without proposing mandatory action. The Coalition have said very little beyond a motherhood statement, ‘We are partnering with industry on actions to reduce waste and increase recycling.’
Words: Jeff Angel and Max Timken
Authorised by Jeff Angel, Boomerang alliance, 99 Devonshire St, Surry Hills, NSW 2010