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The tide is turning on single-use plastic

Plastic single use
Photo: Ruben Bagues

A senate report into Australia’s waste and recycling industry has recommended the country ban single-use plastics within five years, including not just bags but potentially plastic-lined coffee cups, containers, chip packets and microbeads.

The move comes as public concern about waste continues to escalate.

An inquiry into Australia’s waste and recycling industry was established following last year’s Four Corners exposé.

According to the inquiry chair, Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, the resulting report released this week – Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia – is “a rare display of political consensus”, with the inquiry committee members from Liberal, Greens and Labor parties calling for the phase-out of petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023.

“The scope of this commitment would require careful consideration and should be developed through the Meeting of Environment Ministers,” the report recommendation says, however Mr Whish-Wilson said it could include “plastic bags, takeaway containers, plastic-lined coffee cups and chip packets”.

“We urgently need to reduce the amount of plastic waste that is ending up in landfill, in stockpiles and in our oceans,” he said.

The move follows most states banning single use plastic bags, as well as the big two supermarkets implementing a ban officially from 1 July. Countries like Costa Rica and India are also planning bans post-2020.

The report has received a warm welcome by environmental academics.

Macquarie University’s Dr Paul Harvey said the call for a plastic ban was welcome news.

“Australia’s dependency on single-use plastics has skyrocketed over the last two decades and, as a result, we see that many of Australia’s valuable natural assets, for example the Great Barrier Reef, are heavily polluted by plastic debris,” he said.

He said while the vast majority of Australians could live without single-use plastics, environmentally friendly and sustainability alternatives needed to be provided to avoid creating more problems.

RMIT University research fellow Simon Lockrey said without systemic change to supply chains, consumption behaviour and attitudes, there could be rebound effects in the supply chain.

“For instance, in food systems, packaging can save food waste in the supply chain, from farm to plate,” he said.

“Without acknowledging other changes to that system when taking away single-use packaging, we may move the waste burden, sometimes to more impactful levels.”

Call for circular economy and national container deposit scheme

The report also called for the federal government to work towards the establishment of a circular economy, prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy, improve waste practices to reduce contamination, shift focus to domestic re-use instead of export, and establish a national container deposit scheme.

Let’s remove impediments to local manufacturing around waste

Mr Whish-Wilson said contamination of recyclables was at the heart of a failure to create a local manufacturing sector and end markets from waste.

“To change this will involve the federal government providing policy leadership to ensure all levels of governments work together to transform how we sort waste at the household end of collection right through to the recycling depot to make sure that our waste streams can be recycled or repurposed or made into feedstock for domestic manufacturing,” he said.

“We can’t continue having pieces of broken glass contaminating our recycled paper waste streams and multiple types of plastic all being lumped in together.”

The most critical recommendation to improve the cleanliness of waste streams was a national container deposit scheme, Mr Whish-Wilson said.

A solution at hand?

UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla said the report recommendations were commendable but there was already a solution at hand to reduce Australia’s stockpiles of waste.

The university has created “microfactories” she said could reform waste into resources as inputs for manufacturing of existing and new products.

“The main impediment to deploying these new methods of effective reformation of waste items in this efficient, economically productive and environmentally sustainable way is the lack of real incentive by all governments for industry to adopt them,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

She said investment could pay off in less than three years, while supporting Australian industry.

“Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”

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