Planning for Plastic


Dave West explains how planning for plastic can drastically reduce the amount of litter in high density locations entering the marine environment.


This week’s blog is broadly themed ‘planning for plastic’ because we want to bring a focus on our state and local government planning rules and development conditions and their role to ensure pollution generated on private property stays on that property and doesn’t contaminate our broader environment.

As we noted in last week’s blog, in every Australian jurisdiction there are laws to ensure industrial and waste facilities are obliged to ensure the plastic waste they generate does not escape into the environment – so it begs the question why don’t those sorts of provisions apply to other commercial activities? We’ve all been disgusted by the mess of litter strewn around hotels after closing hours or seen large entertainment precincts awash with garbage after a major event – surely any level of government agrees that it shouldn’t be allowed and if well planned, can be easily stopped.  

Ironically, we can learn a lot about how to get it right from the regimes McDonalds have put in place over a decade or more via their partnership with our great friends and allies – Clean Up Australia. Make no mistake, McDonalds is a big presence within the litter stream, but if you look at their presence compared to their market share they outperform the other name brands by miles. Here’s a snap shot of some of the initiatives McDonalds demand of their franchises:

  • McDonalds recognise that their brand being a prominent source of litter hurts their reputation. Consequently, they introduced litter patrols – where staff are expected to regularly clean up any of their garbage that’s hit the streets in the vicinity of their shop. It has a limited effect and they can’t control the tosser that throws out their wrappers as they drive down the highways, but equally the amount of their litter they recover is staggering. It’s worth considering what it costs for them to do this too – with over 900 stores across Australia even at 1 hr per store per day (and for many it’s much more than that), the annualised cost comes in at over $5million p.a. Conservatively, we would peg that they invest some 328,000 hours a year into cleaning up litter – after the Clean Up Australia Day effort that’s the biggest investment in cleaning up our garbage in the country.

  • Second they pioneered the use of effective bins to restrict litter blowing out of the bin and into the street and they have a real focus on making sure those bins are emptied well before at risk of overflowing – something large scale entertainment precincts like Darling Harbour and Circular Quay have given up on.
  • They have also redesigned every piece of packaging they generate and eliminated the majority of plastic from their packaging (straws and lids next up, please McDonalds).

There is no question that large scale hospitality outlets and entertainment precincts are one of the largest generators of litter in Australia and the property managers of these types of operations continue to put their head in the sand.  We rate the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) as one of the worst litter managers we have seen in our 12 years of operation, so we confronted them about the problem some 18 months ago.  We presented them with a range of suggestions and many of their lead tenants (thankyou Sea Life) are actively lobbying them to clean up their act.  However despite promising improvements - Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour and Circular Quay all make our list of the 20 worst litter hots spots we’ve seen (and we’ve seen thousands of sites across Australia). Just metres away from the SHFA precincts are equally busy public spaces in Martin Place and Pitt Street Mall – run by Sydney City Council - and over a number of surveys the areas under Sydney City’s control show  the incidence of litter is some 80% less than at Darling Harbour and Circular Quay.


So how could we make this the new minimum standard for the hospitality sector, amusement parks and any large scale resort or venue near our waterfronts? Simple really, we create a regime that is part of the planning approval required before any development, rezoning or construction. That regime could be a simple checklist that outlines what these operations need to do to ensure they take responsibility for their pollution. Some of the things we think could be incorporated into a planning for plastics operation include:

  • While plastic litter can escape a site in a variety of ways the most common way plastic litter enters our waterways is by being blown across the ground – guard rails along the perimeters of waterways should be fitted with netting or a ‘gutter’ to trap those plastics. Architectural genius, Jorn Utzon, got it right when he designed the Sydney Opera House back in 1957 and installed a solid guard rail around the Opera Houses perimeter.  If you check out our podcast walking along the Circular Quay foreshore you’ll see that as you leave the Quay and enter the Opera House the amount of garbage blowing into the water virtually stops. The placement of bins and ash trays (so they are readily accessible but also are well set back from the waterside) is equally important.

  • Next are basic management systems to ensure that staff act responsibly. Check out any caravan park or local green space just after they have mowed their lawns and you’ll find thousands of tiny bits of paper and plastic – litter caught up in the mower because the property hasn’t been cleaned up. Every one of those pieces will escape the site and enter our waterways already fragmented into deadly microplastic. It really isn’t hard to require these sorts of operations to ensure their staff take a leaf out of McDonalds’ book.

  • Third, if you want to run a large scale takeaway operation on our beach fronts or in riverside and harbour entertainment precincts you simply must purchase packaging that is, at least relatively benign if they are littered – that means no plastic bags, no polystyrene clam shells, no disposable plastic cups – every single plastic packaging product can be replaced by a non-plastic alternative.

  • These sorts of operations also need to have special bins, designed to limit the amount of garbage that is blown out of the bin and to ensure the mouth of the bin won’t increase ‘bin bounce’- where consumers attempt to drop their garbage into the bin but poor design means it gets caught on the lip and falls to the ground instead of the bin. Some of these precincts attract thousands of visitors a day in peak season, but they don’t increase their bin capacity or the regularity of servicing these bins to cope with the expected traffic.

So while its well and good that some responsible operators are making a huge effort to tackle their garbage the majority just keep sticking their head in the sand and their rubbish in our oceans – so it’s time to regulate and the simplest way to do that is via our state and local planning development and consent systems.

NB This is the last blog before we release our Threat Abatement Plan to cut Marine Plastic Pollution in Sydney next Thursday – we will be acknowledging the two State Environment Ministers who are leading the way – The Hon Mark Speakman (NSW) and the Hon Steven Miles (Qld) who will be joining their state, territory and federal colleagues at the COAG meeting for Environment Minister’s the next day. It’s an exciting time and signifies the point where we move from policy development and into the action phase.

We need your support and assistance to take on this massive undertaking - it’s pretty much the first holistic, national plan to tackle marine plastic pollution underpinned by concrete actions and timelines. We recognise that it’s a big task but are excited to lead our wonderful allies into the next phase. 


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Thanks to the 5,000 + people who have responded to our blogs and answered our polls – we’ll be continuing our blogs into 2017.  

Wishing you a restful and enjoyable holiday season.


Dave West

Founder and National Policy Director