If plastics were radioactive we would pay more attention to their half-lives. Even the CSIRO have set an ambitious new mission to “end plastic waste”. If only it wasn’t such a useful material!
Plastic has transformed everyday life, being easy to manufacture, durable, strong for its weight, and resistant to shock, corrosion, chemicals, and water.
However, its utility and low cost has led to a veritable tsunami of plastics in homes and then in our waste streams, much of it packaging and other single-use applications.
According to Wikipedia, a third of all plastic produced in developed countries is used in packaging!
The diversity of uses is matched by the number of locations it ends up in, including the sea, fish, birds, and soil profiles. Anyone who saw Monday’s Four Corners program “Plastic Wars” would agree we have a problem.
Local governments face two major pressure points when it comes to sustainable waste management.
On the one hand, the cost of managing waste is rising rapidly due to the climbing rate of waste being generated, reduced landfill availability, and increases in state landfill levies.
On the other, community expectations are growing about how waste is managed. Australians increasingly want their waste to be managed sustainably and responsibly.
Hence the proliferation of initiatives like Plastic Free July, Plastic Oceans Australasia, and the Minderoo Foundation’s No Plastic Waste project.
Awareness-raising and public education are a vital aspect of improved waste management, but buy-in from industry, commercial waste service providers, and all levels of government is more important. So is acting to minimise the production of single-use plastics.
Perhaps transitioning to a circular economy that pulls waste plastic back into the manufacturing cycle is the most vital plank of all.
So how are we progressing on these many fronts?
From the local government angle, creditably well. As I related in my presentation at a Plastic Oceans webinar last month, councils, collectively or individually, are active in community education, technological innovation, and procurement policies designed to create a sustainable market for recycle materials.
Councils have played a key role in the success of container deposit schemes and green sheds. Others have been proactive in discouraging or banning single-use plastics from outdoor festivals and markets. More and more are choosing to buy outdoor furniture, bollards and road pavement products that incorporate recycled plastics.
Local governments cannot do it alone, however. A whole-of-government approach is needed with national agreements and coordination of the initiatives adopted.
The National Waste Action Plan, driven by ALGA and the other two tiers of government, is the most obvious manifestation of this approach. Crucially, the plan lays the groundwork for a circular economy in which waste is eliminated as far as possible and what is not is used more than once.
To get there, ALGA has strongly advocated to other levels of government the need for strong product stewardship and ambitious investment in new collection, sorting, and reprocessing infrastructure.
ALGA has also called for national standards recycled content in roads so more councils can lay new road pavement products with confidence.
And we are winning. Earlier this month, the Commonwealth said it was creating a new Recycling Modernisation Fund (into which it would invest $190 million) and providing $35 million to implement the National Waste Policy Action Plan. A further $25 million is being invested in improving national waste data.
Both ARRB and Austroads are doing research on new pavement designs, and the NSW EPA has approved a pavement product including recycled plastics for general use.
All very encouraging, but overall progress can seem frustratingly slow at times, with setbacks and roadblocks almost routine. Even within our own sector, early enthusiasm for trials with new road pavement products has been followed by extreme conservatism in transitioning beyond the trail phase, despite overwhelming evidence and community support for change.
The plastics and packaging industries have registered big sales increases during Covid-19 off the back of higher demand for healthcare and food container products. In the US, lobbyists have even called for plastic bag bans to be rolled back in the name of public safety.
If we are to achieve a sustainable and effective materials waste solution, the No 1 priority now is for the private sector to step up and commit to product stewardship schemes – through its own efforts or at the behest of governments.
The Senate’s ongoing inquiry into the Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019 is one avenue for achieving this outcome, providing it recommends making such scheme mandatory, as ALGA’s submission has urged it to do.
Many companies are embracing the “polluter pays” principle, others are proving to be laggards.
Market-based solutions – such as the Minderoo Foundation’s initiative to make fossil-fuel-based plastics more expensive to produce and thus more valuable to collect – are one way to alter corporate behaviour.
Another is to apply pressure through shareholder blocs to make it clear that companies producing single-use or difficult-to-recycle plastics will be increasingly held to account by shareholders and broader public scrutiny.
In the meanwhile, ALGA will continue advocating for greater state, territory and federal spending on fit-for-purpose sorting and reprocessing plants. Because the problems we face as a sector can be met with new investment and new markets for recycled material.
But the clock is winding down for this to be in place before the National Waste Export Ban starts.