Most countries, including Australia, have recognised the threats posed by marine plastic litter. Estimates show that at current rates of littering there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 (by weight).1 In Australia, the CSIRO calculate that ‘two thirds of the marine debris found along our coastline is plastic, most from local sources.’2
Plastic packaging is routinely in the top 5 littered items in both the National Litter Index and Clean Up Australia reports. The most recent Clean Up Australia (2018) report estimates that 39% of all litter is plastic. If left uncollected that plastic will break up into microplastics, threaten wildlife that consume it and potentially enter the human food chain.
There are alternatives to single use plastic takeaway products. The primary option being to avoid single use items in favour of reusable food ware. If not possible, 100% compostable packaging is an available option. Fully compostable packaging is not derived from fossil fuels unlike other plastics.
Many food outlets, markets and public events right around Australia have already changed their practices and reduced their plastic footprint, through these practices.
‘The Boomerang Alliance believes after banning lightweight plastic bags and introducing a deposit scheme for drinks containers, the phase-out of single use plastics is the next step in reducing plastic pollution and litter.
As the largest component of litter, removing many single-use plastics will cut litter collection costs to Commonwealth, State and local Governments. Boomerang Alliance estimate that cost to be approximately $500 M spent annually on litter clean-ups.3
There are also the additional unrecognised costs associated with community litter clean ups, and the efforts made by ordinary Australians over a quarter of a century.
As the late Ian Kiernan AO stated at Clean Up Australia’s 2015 report, ‘ After 25 years of solid work by hundreds of thousands of citizens, it's about time for their government to acknowledge the efforts of these volunteers and demonstrate some leadership by stopping plastics and containers being discarded in the first place.’
The Commonwealth and all State and Territory jurisdictions have agreed to having all packaging reusable, compostable or recyclable by 2025. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) have a target of 70% of packaging actually composted or recycled by 2025.
Action, the next step
To meet these targets, the Commonwealth needs to act now and set a schedule to achieve those outcomes. In ‘away from home’ circumstances, the most obvious and achievable policy setting is to support reusable and compostable practices and set a phase-out date for single use plastics that do not meet those requirements.
Australia has supported the UN Environment Program to reduce Marine Debris and needs to lead by example, assisting and lobbying others in our region to change practices. This cannot be done without a domestic policy shift on single use plastics.
Internationally, countries and corporations are moving towards removing single use plastics. These practice changes need to be supported and regulated by Government to ensure they are achieved. Many international brands have promised to change practices to achieve packaging goals including 100% recycled content. They include Mars, Unilever, Pepsi, Coke, Nestle’, L’Oréal and Colgate-Palmolive. Most recently Coca Cola stopped supplying customers with plastic straws, as part of this practice shift.
This year, the European Union announced an intention to ban a range of single use plastics by 2021. Over 25 cities and regions around the world have already acted to remove single use plastics, in addition to plastic bags. Etihad Airlines recently flew its first plastic free long distance flight.
In Australia, the recent encouraging trend has been the ban plastics bags in most jurisdictions, with only NSW currently resisting. Major retailers have already acted to remove lightweight plastic bags, which has contributed to an estimated 80% reduction in lightweight plastic bag use (from 2017). There are some questions however if the alternative heavier weight bags are reused by most shoppers, as intended.
Most states and territories have introduced a container deposit scheme for drink containers. These schemes are proving that litter rates significantly reduce when they are put in place. In NSW, Return and Earn is responsible for an estimated 33% reduction in beverage litter and in QLD litter surveys indicate a 35% decrease in beverage container litter since the introduction of the CRS. In South Australia, which has had a CDS since 1977, litter rates are generally less by a factor of three compared to other States4
Some states and territories are now considering their next steps in addressing litter and plastic wastes. Both South Australia and Western Australia are publicly canvassing plans to phase-out single use plastics. Most other jurisdictions are reviewing their own future policies with a single-use plastics phase-out a key consideration. Local governments from Cairns to Hobart are already acting. Many local authorities and public events have introduced plastic free events policies to reduce plastic use, litter and waste.
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) and the Boomerang Alliance have formed a partnership to develop a Plastic Free Places community program to promote the switch away from single use plastic takeaway. The partnership is based upon a successful model developed in Noosa and extended to Byron Bay (NSW) and Bassendean (WA). This has demonstrated that the hospitality sector is able to play a positive role in reducing plastics and has willingly switched to alternatives. The Noosa project has removed nearly 3 million single use plastic items in 13 months of operation and continues to expand. Other community programs have produced similar results.
Commonwealth must play a role
The global trend and one that needs to be rapidly expanded in Australia is the phase-out of single use plastic takeaway items. To achieve the national targets set for packaging requires us to act now.
Australia can make a big leap forward if the next Commonwealth Government, with the support of other political parties, set a date for the phase-out of a range of single use plastic takeaway items commonly found in litter and waste streams.
The Boomerang Alliance has identified 6 items that should be included in a phase out: coffee cups and lids, straws, cutlery, cups and containers, plastic bags and plastic water bottles. All have readily available alternatives and, as many citizens and businesses are proving, the community is ready to change, if the Commonwealth sets the policy agenda.
We don’t accept that enough is being done but a start has been made at this election. We framed our key election asks as Saving Recycling and Phasing-out Single Use Plastics. As at 6 May we have promises from all the key parties to support and invest in recycling. We need similar promises on single use plastics.
To date Labor policies state the party is ‘open to extending phase-outs to single use plastics’. The Greens have committed to this policy by 2025. The Coalition has not made any statement.
1 Ellen Macarthur New plastic Economy Report 2016
2 Understanding the effects of marine debris on wildlife CSIRO study 2014
3 Turn Back the Toxic Tide Report-Boomerang Alliance/Dave West 2016
4 Understanding the effects of marine debris on wildlife CSIRO study 2014
Authorised by Jeff Angel, Boomerang Alliance, 99 Devonshire St, Surry Hills, NSW 2010