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Building a national approach to single use plastics

national plastics plan

Plastic recycling remains one of the most challenging areas in Australia’s journey to achieving the 2025 National Packaging Targets. Brooke Donnelly, CEO of Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) looks at the state of play.

With just 16 per cent of plastic packaging successfully recovered in 2019-20, Australian government and industry will need to make significant changes to successfully reach our plastic recovery target of 70 per cent. Building a clear and nationally consistent approach to the phase-out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging (SUPs) is one of these all-important areas of change. 

In 2019, about 50,700 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging was produced, making up 5 per cent of the total 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging placed on the Australian market. Phasing out SUPs is fundamentally a packaging design issue and an essential part of closing the 14 per cent gap that exists between packaging that is recyclable by design (84 per cent) and Australia’s 100 per cent recyclable National Packaging Target. 

The good news is that both industry and government have made significant progress on the phase-out of SUPs already. Since the 2025 National Packaging Targets were agreed in 2018, APCO has worked with the whole plastic supply chain to produce an agreed list of materials for phase-out and agreed timelines to meet that phase-out. 

The items that businesses and government are working to phase out include lightweight plastic shopping bags, fragmentable plastics, expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging for food/beverage service and fresh produce, EPS loose fill packaging, moulded EPS packaging for white/brown goods and electronics, rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) packaging, rigid polystyrene (PS) packaging, opaque polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and rigid plastic packaging with carbon black. 

At the federal government level, the National Plastics Plan released in 2021 set out a new standard for how Australia will tackle the plastics issue. The Plan provides a comprehensive approach designed to keep plastic in the economy for as long as possible, and out of landfill and the environment. It also sets out clear deadlines that industry needs to make in the phase-out of single-use plastic packaging. 

State and territory governments are continuing to develop and implement policy and legislation on SUPs, including some packaging items. In November 2021, the NSW Government passed the Plastic and Circular Economy Act 2021. This legislation provides for the government to ban problematic and single-use plastics items, establish mandatory design standards, mandate product stewardship approaches and targets, and require the development of action plans.

In January 2022, regulations came into force in Western Australia to ban certain single-use plastic items. Enforcement of bans on stage 1 items will start from 1 July, except plastic cups (including some plastic-lined paper cups) which are banned from 1 October 2022. Plastic and plastic-lined takeaway coffee cups are included in stage 2 of the bans, which start on 1 January 2023. A full list of single-use plastic phase-outs for the relevant states and territories can be found in the February government update on the APCO website

There are plenty of Australian businesses that are making these changes in their packaging already. In 2019, Woolworths and Coles phased out single-use plastic bags while Officeworks is a leader in the space, having successfully phased out all polystyrene packaging from its home brand furniture and shredders and now helping the wider supply chain to follow suit.

APCO also has a range of tools, programs and resources to help businesses make these changes. In December 2020, APCO published Strategies for Problematic and Unnecessary Single-Use Plastic Packaging, a practical resource to help Australia’s packaging supply chain phase out this packaging through innovative, sustainable solutions.

APCO has a range of new resources  in production to help industry make the change from single use to recyclable packaging. This includes the roadmap to implement a national phase-out of business-to-consumer EPS packaging, which sets out a voluntary, industry-led approach to address the environmental impacts associated with EPS packaging in Australia. 

Looking ahead, APCO will continue to engage with state and territory governments, members and stakeholders regarding SUPs policies. 

We are seeking coherent, national approaches based on sound evidence and environmental outcomes. By continuing to collaborate with the complete packaging supply chain, we can shift our approach away from single-use, disposable plastic to more durable reusable and recyclable options.  

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