There is no greater symbol of the community’s obsession with convenience and consumption than plastic. Arguably, consumption has for a long time been viewed as a major driver of economic development and wealth, without as much consideration of the downsides (no, not just debt), the adverse impacts that our purchasing habits have had on natural resources and the environment.
Plastic may have many advantages (affordable servings, lengthening life span, etc.) but it has just as many disadvantages - reliance on fossil fuel, encouraging a disposable linear mindset, to name a few. Activities such as Plastic Free July are fantastic initiatives, not only for being Australian and championed internationally (well done Rebecca Prince-Ruiz), but for enabling government and the entire community to stop and think about the plastic we buy and use, and the role that it has, allowing us to question if really need any of it – even the product that’s wrapped in plastic - and if there are re-useable alternatives instead. Today, my daughters in primary school think more about this stuff daily than I ever did, so it is great to have a month that specifically brings these thoughts front of mind!
There is a general realisation today that the creation of single-use plastic is a major issue. Many are aware of plastic’s creation from fossil fuel, its role in reinforcing a culture of mindless consumption, the challenges associated with mindless disposal, and how difficult it can be to recovery resources from complex and problematic materials. It has been hard to argue against affordability but with statistics such as the Ellen McCarthur Foundation’s claim that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, it is becoming harder to argue against continued use of single-use plastic.
Numerous countries around the world are taking steps to avoid its creation as well as manage its use and disposal, some with greater success than others. Bali, for example, has impressed with its swiftness of action. On 2 July 2019, the Indonesian island, home to 4.3 million people and paradise to five million tourists each year (including me!), banned single-use plastic items including plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene just six months after announcing the plan. Not six years but six months, and with a population largely made up of short stay tourists.
In Australia, we are also seeing some positive action at the state level, namely SA’s announcement that it will soon eliminate a range of single-use plastics, WA’s consultation currently underway, and NSW’s recent announcement that it too will have a plastic strategy. Wouldn’t it be even better however, given we are one country, if we could harness all of these initiatives and develop one national approach instead?
Industry has been calling on the Federal government for years to maximise levers to address packaging nationally (including eliminating single-use plastics), strengthen the laws and framework around extended producer responsibility, and move to a mandatory scheme that includes mandated percentages of Australian recycled content in packaging. But it is disappointing, especially in knowing how quickly other nations have acted, that the Australian government decided in 2018 that we needed seven years (that’s right, years, not months) to achieve change, begging the question, are we overthinking this?
Managing our single-use packaging consistently and nationally is in fact, neither complex or difficult. Bali has done it in record time, Canada is proposing a two-year timeframe and the UK has a roadmap Australia can simply adopt, meaning there is no need to reinvent the wheel and there is certainly no need to continue dragging the chain.
As Plastic Free July ends, WMRR is proposing a simple national plan that can be developed quickly to transform the way Australia makes, uses, and disposes of plastic and beyond just plastic, create a sustainable, resource efficient national circular economy. We acknowledge that each state is looking at their own circular economy strategy but economies, like waste, do not recognise state boundaries and we need a national approach to this, like we do with most other issues in our industry, to create certainty and a level playing field. Doing so also sends a signal to the world that Australia is serious about solving our waste and resource challenges.
If I haven’t already been clear, we need national leadership from the Federal government. We need to establish a national independent body that is representative of Australia’s supply chain with key stakeholders, including all levels of governments and government bodies, businesses, all industries involved in product and packaging manufacturing and remanufacturing, the waste and resource recovery sector, charities, not-for-profits, and associations. This body’s sole purpose must be to accelerate Australia’s move to a circular economy by finding solutions to boost resource avoidance and efficiency at every point in the supply chain. Australia can look to models such as WRAP UK or Zero Scotland for inspiration.
One of the reasons why WRAP UK has had proven success in driving resource efficiency is because it has a national plan to tackle issues and develop solutions for each of its priority sectors – food and drink, clothing and textiles, electricals and electronics, and plastics - the same issues we face in Australia, yet we tackle them by state. Through national research and development, recycling programs and projects (including improving infrastructure), voluntary agreements, consumer campaigns and education, grants and financial support, WRAP UK is maximising the value of waste by increasing the quantity and quality of materials collected for re-use and recycling, and re-inventing how the UK designs, produces, and sells products.
One of its more recent initiatives, the UK Plastics Pact, which was established in mid-2018, has set ambitious 2025 targets that include milestones commencing now for its coalition of more than 120 brands, retailers, manufacturers, producers, recyclers, NGOs, governments and local authorities. The reason why the UK Plastics Pact is gaining traction (and this is the same reason why WRAP UK is successful) is because it has a history of being independent and delivering tangible results for all parts of the supply chain, including councils, recyclers and industry, enabling it to have the confidence of all participants to bring these 120 players that represent more than 80% of the UK’s plastic packaging to the national table to make a commitment to the targets.
The fact that each initiative, pact, or agreement specific to the identified priority material stream falls under the one national body, and action is undertaken on a national level, also offers consistency, certainty, and confidence for all stakeholders, driving participation and engagement. This is so far lacking in Australia with its smattering of different bodies.
Funding this independent national body is a no-brainer (at least from where I’m standing). The Federal government has already committed over $200 million at the last election to support our industry and the manufacturing of lower emissions and energy efficient recycled content products, such as recycled content plastics and paper/pulp. A portion of this fund should be allocated to the independent body, in addition to funds currently being channeled to other federally-auspiced organisations looking at these issues, including FIAL.
Australia has the funds, the need, the desire, and the challenges to set up a WRAP UK-esque body. What we now need is will from the Federal government to launch this. Here’s an idea – let’s adopt this model at the Meeting of Environment Ministers and get on with it, so we get national consistency and action and start harnessing what is a lot of great work going on around the country. Let’s stop going around in our own circles and instead, work together and drive Australia forward in a consistent direction.
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