In a move unanimously welcomed by industry, the Australian government has launched its long-awaited National Plastics Plan, which lays out a strategy and clear (but not mandatory) targets to attack the problem of single-use plastics from all sides over the next decade.

Sussan Ley, Minister for the Environment, who headed up the Plan’s launch in Brisbane, said it was time to change the way we produce and consume plastics, and that it was time for states, industry and consumers to work together in driving sustainable change. 

“We know the problems, we know that there are good ideas out there, but this is the first national strategy – one that attacks the issue from all sides and sets clear targets over the next decade,” says Ley.

“We are wasting potential assets that can be used to make new products, so we are attacking the plastic problem on five key fronts – legislation, investment, industry, targets, research and development, and community education.

“We want to work with companies, bring consumers with us and call out those companies that make false environmental claims about their products.” 

The Plan highlights a range of initiatives led by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) as key drivers to delivering tangible improvements to plastic packaging reduction, recycling, and recycled content uptake in the Australian marketplace. 

Firstly, the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) was recognised as a key consumer recycling education tool, with the federal government committing to work with industry to apply the ARL on at least 80 per cent of supermarket products by December 2023.

To date more than 50 Australian businesses have committed to the ARL program, with the label now being used by brands including Woolworths, Officeworks, Nestlé, Blackmores, Australia Post, Unilever and Plantic.

It will also be rolled out on business-to-business packaging, while the government will work with APCO to support ARL uptake by small-to-medium enterprises.

The Plan also highlighted APCO’s Recycled Content Pledge Project, which will see major brands publicly commit to transitioning a percentage of their packaging from virgin to recycled material. 

The Project will help to drive the critical market demand for recycled materials that will enable Australia to meet the 2025 National Packaging Targets and help to stimulate major investment in packaging manufacturing and recycling processes for the future.

Another key feature for the federal government’s strategy is the National Packaging Targets, particularly the target to phase out all problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

Under the new Plan, Australia will phase out expanded polystyrene (EPS) from loose fill and moulded consumer packaging by July 2022, followed by EPS food and beverage containers and PVC packaging by December 2022.

Ultimately, the federal government hopes to ensure that 100 per cent of all packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

“One year on since the 2020 National Plastics Summit in Canberra, it’s fantastic to see how much progress has already been delivered on the plastic packaging issue,” says Brooke Donnelly, APCO CEO. 

“Australia has a huge task ahead of us to meet the 2025 National Packaging Targets, and in particular, ensure 70 per cent of our plastic packaging is recycled for future use. 

“However, as the National Plastics Plan demonstrates, there is a rich program of work being rolled out by APCO, our members, and our partners in government and the community.” 

The Australian government also joined the push for a new global agreement to address marine plastic pollution, which according to Katinka Day, WWF-Australia No Plastics in Nature policy manager, is a breakthrough.

A WWF petition calling for the global agreement to tackle plastic pollution has already gained more than two million signatures – the largest response ever for WWF worldwide petition. 

Among other actions identified in the federal government’s Plan include:

  • Greater consistency for kerbside bin collections, including food and organic waste options;
  • The establishment of a taskforce to address the plastics in littered cigarette butts;
  • A second plastics summit focussing on sustainable design;
  • Phasing in microplastic filters in washing machines; and
  • A plastic free beaches initiative. 

“It’s fantastic to see the government recognise that plastic pollution is a global, trans-boundary problem, which cannot be solved through national or regional initiatives alone,” Day says. 

“Australia now joins 68 countries, which have expressed strong support for a global agreement, as well as nearly 50 corporations.

“Though, while the Plan will review progress of the 2025 packaging targets in 2022, this is not enough to keep pressure on industry. Only mandatory targets will ensure these packaging commitments are actually met,” Day adds.

While also welcoming the Plan, Shane Cucow, plastics spokesperson for the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), agrees with Day, believing the Plan relies too heavily on voluntary targets and doesn't go far enough on plastic packaging. 

“By not including mandatory targets for reducing plastic packaging, the government is missing a critical opportunity to address one of the worst types of plastics polluting our oceans,” explains Cocow 

“Recent estimates by APCO show only 18 per cent of plastic packaging is currently recycled or composted in Australia.

“We encourage the government to move urgently to make Australia’s plastic reduction targets mandatory. At the end of the day, voluntary targets have not given manufacturers sufficient incentive to cut their plastic pollution, and our ocean wildlife are paying the price.”

To be banned: Single-use plastic in SA

Jeff Angel, director of Boomerang Alliance, also believes clearer, mandatory targets should be put in place for the best outcomes.

“To ensure that 100 per cent of packaging is reusable, compostable or recyclable by the 2025 target and achieve 50 per cent recycled content in plastic packaging means government has to keep the pressure up on industry,” Angel says. 

“Labels saying something is recyclable are meaningless if that does not happen in practice, which is why we believe regulation will be necessary.”

To dig deeper into the Australian government’s phase-out plan of problematic plastic and its 38 actions to tackle this, click here.

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