Phasing out cigarette filters, microbeads and most types of disposable plastic foodware and containers would help halve the amount of plastic pollution flowing into Australia’s environment, according to a new report.
The report, commissioned by WWF-Australia and prepared by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), presents a comprehensive set of recommendations for addressing six problematic single-use plastics: plastic bottles, soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics, disposable foodware, disposable packaging and containers, cigarettes and microplastics.
Analysing data from clean-up activities, BCG found these ‘six to solve’ materials make up the majority of litter collected from the environment and pose the greatest threat to Australia’s oceans and waterways.
“We estimate these six types of plastic account for 70 per cent of our single-use plastics consumption in Australia and make up 75,000 tonnes of the 130,000 tonnes of plastic flowing into our environment each year,” BCG Managing Director Wendy Mackay said.
“This equates to around 600 million plastic bottles, 7.14 billion pieces of soft plastics and a staggering eight billion cigarette butts leaking to the environment each year, making cigarettes the most littered item in Australia.”
According to WWF-Australia No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager Katinka Day, littered cigarettes get washed into storm water drains and waterways, where marine animals can mistake them for food and be killed by the toxic materials.
“Cigarette filters are made from non biodegradable plastic that can take up to 15 years to break down,” she said.
“Afterwards they become microplastics and leach their toxins into our oceans.”
The report proposes three actions Australia’s federal, state and territory governments can take to reduce consumption of these six plastics and prevent their leakage into nature:
— Develop a roadmap to phase out cigarette filters, microbeads and most types of disposable plastic foodware, packaging and containers.
— Enact regulation to manage single-use plastics that can’t be phased-out through product standards (e.g. designing for recyclability) and measures to improve collection (e.g. container deposit schemes).
— Incentivise development and adoption of sustainable alternatives and systems to assist the transition away from single-use plastics.
The report found these actions have the potential to reduce Australia’s consumption of the ‘six to solve’ plastics by a quarter, more than double the rate of recovery for recycling and more than halve the leakage of plastic into the environment.
“We have the opportunity to halve the amount of plastic pollution flowing into nature right now, but we need our governments to take the lead. Industries and individuals cannot solve the planet’s plastic problem alone,” Day said.
Furthermore, the report shows that moving away from problematic plastics can be done, highlighting innovative examples of businesses and other countries leading the way.
These examples include the Loop circular shopping system where groceries are sold in reusable and refillable containers, and a startup called Evoware that uses seaweed as an alternative to plastic packaging.
Day added that other countries are also finding solutions to extinguish problematic plastic litter, such as cigarette filters.
The EU has introduced a ‘polluter pays’ model that requires cigarette producers to cover the costs of clean up, while California has proposed a ban on single-use plastic filters.
“These success stories show we have the solutions to beat plastic pollution. Australian businesses are trying to tackle the problem, but the fragmented regulatory landscape makes it difficult and expensive and also stifles innovation,” Day said.
“If our governments adopt the recommendations of this report they will save costs for businesses, encourage innovation and stop 44,000 tonnes of plastic from pouring into our environment each year.”
Image credit: WWF Australia.