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Peak industry bodies and packaging manufacturers have welcomed the Australian Environment Ministers’ recently announced plans to implement  a collaborative, national approach to packaging regulation, along with a focus on design standards and traceability.

The country’s Environment Ministers met in Adelaide and agreed to develop ambitious national targets to protect nature, critical next steps to transition Australia to a circular economy, and practical on-ground actions to boost conservation.

The Ministers agreed that Federal Government will step up as the new regulator of packaging standards, and will mandate how packaging is designed, will set minimum recycled content requirements, and prohibit harmful chemicals being used. 

“Australia’s new Federal national packaging laws will provide regulatory certainty and consistency, and make businesses take responsibility for the 6.7 million tonnes of packaging they place on the Australian market,” the Ministers’ stated in their communique.

“Strengthened regulation will drive investment, minimise waste and support circular economy outcomes, industries and jobs. 

“Better packaging design makes it easier to reduce waste and to reuse, recycle or compost packaging waste. Creating demand for recycled content will also increase recycling rates.”

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) was first to respond to PKN following the announcement last Friday. 

Chris Foley, APCO CEO, said: “This announcement by Environment Ministers is exactly what APCO and our members have been seeking: a strong regulatory framework that will underpin the transition to a circular economy for packaging in Australia. Two measures specified by Ministers – mandatory design standards and recycled content requirements – will effectively bookend the system and drive increased collection and recycling. APCO’s members identified these measures as key in during the national consultation roadshow APCO conducted in August this year.”

Foley told PKN that APCO’s attention – and that of policy makers – will now turn to the all-important detail that will give effect to the Ministers’ announcement and create the business confidence and investment certainty needed. Important questions to consider, he said, will include: How prescriptive will the design standards be and how quickly will they seek to drive change? What data is needed and how will it be collected? What role will extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes play? 

“Building on the consultation we have conducted with our members over the past 12 months, APCO will undertake another major round of consultation with members in the first half of 2024. In the meantime, we will maintain regular communication with policy makers and keep our members informed of progress,” Foley said. 

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) said that the announcement is fundamental for a closed loop on packaging, particularly soft plastics in Australia, and says for a true circular economy to occur, all sections of the supply chain need to collaborate and move forward together.”

“Any increase in the use of recycled content relies on sufficient collection and processing of that material here in Australia. Mandatory design standards are essential for a circular economy, but importantly require a recycling system to process the material Australians collect at home,” a Council spokesperson said.

“Traceability of recycling material will provide confidence for Australians to recycle, brands the confidence to procure recycled content, and the broader supply chain the confidence to invest in recycling infrastructure, creating local jobs.

“A circular economy for soft plastics is a huge opportunity for Australia economically and environmentally. We look forward to being part of the solution and continuing to collaborate with the entire supply chain to reduce landfill, create jobs and to close the loop on soft plastics.”

Rigid plastic packaging manufacturer Pact Group has welcomed the regulatory reforms for packaging, with CEO and managing director, Sanjay Dayal, saying that implementing strict design standards and mandating minimum recycled content quotas for all packaging will “turbo-charge” Australia’s circular economy, particularly for plastics.

“Plastic packaging that is designed effectively, that is recyclable and recycled properly can stay in the circular economy almost indefinitely,” Dayal said.

“The transition to more sustainable packaging has progressed slowly in Australia to date because we have been relying on voluntary targets and the goodwill of industry leaders. These regulatory reforms will bring about a step change in the packaging industry and help divert huge volumes of plastic waste from landfill, improve our environment, and create more jobs in Australia’s circular economy.

"Better collection and sorting of waste, along with improved labelling requirements for packaging would help increase the quantity and quality of available recyclable material.

“As an integrated plastic recycling and packaging manufacturer, Pact stands ready to embrace the reforms and help our customers transition to more sustainable packaging options.”

The decision to move from voluntary to mandating national packaging targets have also been welcomed by the Boomerang Alliance, who said it awaits the next stage in a full-scale collection and reprocessing scheme and less plastic in the environment.

“This is the first step in a revolution in how Australia handles packaging waste and pollution,’’ said Jeff Angel, director of Boomerang Alliance.

“There also needs to be a focus on reducing the amount of plastic, growing reuse, and industry funding of the circular economy engine. It’s their responsibility and I’m sure consumers want far less environmental damage from packaging and plastic pollution.

 ‘’Voluntary approaches by the sector over the last two decades have failed and the Boomerang Alliance has submitted a best practice scheme that will make a real difference.’’

Ministers have endorsed a national traceability framework, which they said will be key to driving the reuse of recovered plastics, glass and other materials into new products.

Ministers also agreed on a framework that will accelerate product stewardship by better coordinating work across governments, including WA leading on tyres and NSW leading on solvents. 

According to the Ministers, product stewardship schemes will play a key role in holding producers accountable for managing their waste and driving circularity.

However, they said that these schemes are not open-ended, and where industry does not respond sufficiently, government will regulate.

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