Last Word

Plastic not so fantastic

Consistent labelling and increased industry capacity would help councils identify the correct pathways for recyclable plastics, writes Australian Local Government Association President David O’Loughlin.

It revolutionised the modern world. Plastics made consumerism and production boom, cars and household goods cheaper, food purchasing safer, freight packaging lighter and filled our homes, offices and communities with new products. 

But where has it all gone? More than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic are estimated to exist in the world, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances – the equivalent of more than 55 million jumbo jets. Some of this plastic exists in the form of new products, some as products currently in use, and the rest in landfill, in the environment, or in stockpiles waiting for new markets. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes produced worldwide, approximately 79 per cent is estimated to be in landfill or in the broader environment.

According to the 2018 National Waste Report, only 12 per cent of plastic waste in Australia is recycled. When compared to other waste, such as masonry materials, organics and ash, plastics do not make up a huge tonnage within the Australian waste stream, but it is their pervasiveness in the environment, low levels of recycling, and easy access to products made from virgin materials (which dissuades recycling) that are real causes for concern.

Work by peak bodies such as the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), to assist product designers and manufacturers to reduce plastic waste through better product design and to incorporate used plastic in new packaging are important steps forward as part of extended producer responsibility. However, strong Federal Government action is needed to impose similar standards on the huge volumes on imported goods we collectively consume annually.

On the local government front, the sector has also long been grappling with plastics in the waste stream, such as plastic wraps and polystyrene, kettles and computers, milk bottles, detergent containers and plant pots, toner cartridges and bags, fast food packets, meat trays and office stationary – the list seems endless. Around 35 to 45 per cent of plastics produced are just for single-use packaging. 

But local councils have also been at the forefront of action for some time now. Many councils have plastic management policies and requirements for event managers to source non-plastic and sustainable alternatives, and council engineers are increasingly embracing products and materials which incorporate recycled materials and provide superior performance. 

The Surf Coast Shire Council in Victoria is just one of many councils with a Plastic Wise Program as part of its commitment to eliminating single-use plastics at events and markets. Event organisers work with stallholders, sponsors, contractors, volunteers, patrons and participants to use alternatives to single-use and disposable plastics bags, packaging and promotional materials. 

Meanwhile, in Adelaide, the city of festivals, hosting approximately 800 events every year – the City of Adelaide and other surrounding councils, including the Cities of Prospect and Marion, have strong Sustainable Event Guidelines. These guidelines have been developed collaboratively with event organisers, the waste industry and event suppliers to minimise plastic consumption and maximise food recycling – even the plates, ‘glasses’ and cutlery can be composted.

The Cities of Onkaparinga, Hume, Kingborough and Sutherland are some of many using asphalt incorporating recycled plastics on full scale road resheeting projects, with immediate potential for costs to be lower and performance higher than traditional asphalt. 

And there are many more of the 537 Australian local governments moving beyond simply collecting waste or processing it. They are actively changing their procurement policies to insist on new products being made from, or including, recycled plastics, from road seals and asphalt, to bollards, street furniture and decking, office furniture, or components of buildings themselves. 

Consistent labelling, recycling classifications and increased industry capacity would greatly assist our time and budget-constrained local government staff identify the correct pathways for collected material and the range of manufacturers using recycled material. 

That is why the Australian Local Government Association is calling on federal, state and territory governments to assist by developing an accreditation and information system to help all consumers, including local government, make better purchasing decisions at the front end. These decisions will minimise consumption of plastics that are difficult to recycle, and drive decision-making to purchase products and materials sourced from recycled materials. In doing so, they will close the loop and therefore truly engage in the recycling process. 

Governments must work together to minimise plastics consumption and maximise plastics remanufacturing. We must walk the talk and our procurement actions can be very powerful, as can the more than $1,000,000,000 sitting in collective state government waste levy accounts, and the hundreds of millions more collected each and every year. These funds should be applied to co-invest in improving plastics recovery and separation, standardising supply chains and subsidising targeted government procurement of goods incorporating reused plastics, until sustainable levels of production and broader consumption are reached.

The Australian Local Government Association looks forward to working with its members, as well as the federal and state and territory governments and industry peak bodies, to minimise plastics consumption and drive demand for products incorporating recycled plastics. With better labelling, national consistency and increased industry capacity, we can help our governments, businesses and residents make more sustainable purchasing and procurement decisions.

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