Plastic Wars – the truth about packaging and recycling

 11 August 2020

Last night’s ABC Four Corners program, ‘Plastic Wars’ reiterates what the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) has been calling out for years – packaging design in Australia needs an urgent overhaul and producers must be held responsible for the products they make.

Recycling, to a large extent, works, with 27 million tonnes recovered annually. In Australia, we are on the cusp of change with a growing appetite to use materials collected and recycled in domestic manufacturing and numerous waste and resource recovery industry players that have proven, viable, and high-quality secondary alternatives to virgin materials. However, as Four Corners illustrated last night, recycling cannot and is not the be all and end all when it comes to plastic packaging.

“The key take-away from last night’s program is that business as usual for plastic packaging does not work. We also need to recognise that recycling in many ways is an end-of-pipe solution that does not tackle the growing and persistent problem highlighted in the show – that of unsustainable plastic packaging design and production,” WMRR CEO, Ms Gayle Sloan, said.

“The narrative that’s being pushed - that solving plastic packaging is all about recycling and the consumer being responsible for sorting - is unfair and incorrect; we cannot sort our way out of this! As so eloquently stated last night, this emphasis has taken all the oxygen from ongoing debates away from ‘reduce and re-use’.  We need to continue the great work of many states like SA and Queensland and eliminate single-use packaging, while addressing the real elephant in the room and focus seriously on design at a national level. 

“The issues highlighted are global. However, here is Australia, WMRR has been calling out for a mandatory product stewardship scheme for packaging. The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has failed over the last two decades to curb the scourge of unrecyclable packaging and has so far missed all voluntary targets that have been set over the last 20 years for the packaging industry. Enough is enough.

“How is it that after years of studies highlighting the problem with packaging in general, and plastics in particular, that Australia is still using outdated data - that being 2017-18 - which includes ‘technically recyclable’ as a criteria? As last night’s show unveiled, ‘technically recyclable’ does not mean it’s realistically or economically recyclable,” Ms Sloan said.

The focus must be on design; here in Australia, it means legislated design standards and this includes the materials selected to ensure they are genuinely recyclable in Australia and not in a lab. The issue at hand is not Australia’s collection or sorting systems. Unfortunately, Australia still doesn’t place enough emphasis on the role of generators to ensure they are responsible for both the design and responsible management of their materials throughout the supply chain.

“We need to take this back to first principles, with legislated (not voluntary) design standards, and if a producer does not want to follow these, then they must have their own funded collections systems. The narrative put forward by the packaging industry has completely deflected from producer responsibility and meeting the true cost of collecting and recycling these materials; instead these are being passed on to householders at the kerb,” Ms Sloan said.

“It is time for bold change, it is time for a carrot and stick approach to tackle packaging, and it is time for mandatory targets and enforcement of these targets to put the onus back on packaging generators – we absolutely cannot allow this system to continue on to 2025 when we know these 2025 voluntary targets cannot and will not be met.”